In the recent past, police departments across the country went of a spree, taking advantage of the 1984 ‘civil asset forfeiture’ law that allowed them to confiscate the property of people who were merely suspected of being involved with crime even if they were never actually charged with anything. These people had no means of getting their stuff back even of they were innocent unless they were prepared to hire lawyers for a protracted battle, which many were too poor to do.
The law allowing this was allegedly designed to prevent cripple major drug dealers and organized crime figures from using the proceeds of their crimes. But local jurisdictions quickly realized that this was an easy way to fill their coffers and started confiscating the property of even minor offenders purely on suspicion. Of course, they targeted the poor knowing that these people did not have the means to fight back.
Over the last few years, a wave of negative publicity about this practice that came to be called ‘legalized theft’ resulted in the federal government warning local departments to stop abusing the law and closing a loophole that made doing so easier. But as Alex Emmons writes, the new attorney general Jeff Sessions is bringing back the practice.
On Wednesday, the Justice Department reopened a specific loophole that allows state and local police to sidestep state laws through a practice known as adoptive forfeitures. The loophole allows state and local law enforcement to continue to pillage the property of citizens even in the face of local bans on the practice, as long as they refer the case to federal agencies after they seize property. They get to keep up to 80 percent of what they take, and can use it for their own budgets. The feds take a 20 percent cut of the loot.
The department also released guidelines that purport to limit the use of adoptive forfeitures. They require the Department of Justice to police itself and ensure that “adoptions involve property lawfully seized” — a measure that civil liberties advocates say is woefully inadequate.
“These purported safeguards amount to little more than self-policing, and we all know how well that works,” said Kanya Bennett, a lawyer for the ACLU that focuses on criminal justice issues. “We can’t trust the very law enforcement agencies that stand to profit from a forfeiture to police themselves.”
The guidelines list certain conditions that must be met to allow adoptive forfeitures for cash amounts less than $10,000. One of the conditions is that police are allowed to make adoptive forfeitures as long as it is alongside an arrest, something that Bennett says is deeply problematic, and may incentivize more arrests.
“At least one of these safeguards will promote more entanglement with the criminal justice system because it suggests all cash seizures under $10k are legitimate if they occur incident to arrest.”
So now expect to see a re-emergence of not only asset forfeitures but also arrests for trivial offenses in order to justify this government theft, resulting in more people being thrown into prison with hardened criminals. We know how well that worked out with the ‘war on drugs’ that resulted in overcrowded jails.
As I have said repeatedly, you can be sure that law enforcement and the national security apparatus, unless tightly constrained, will take advantage of every loophole for their own benefit, and ignore the civil rights and liberties of ordinary people. The idea that these agencies will use their discretion wisely and only use the powers given to them under extreme situations is folly given their past history. Take the case of guns and tasers. These are meant to be used only in extreme situations when all other means fail. But as we have become drearily accustomed to on a daily basis, law enforcement now seem to think that they should shoot first before other de-escalation efforts are even tried.