Thursday, November 23, 2017
Editorials

Editorial: Sessions should end this government cash grab

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Apparently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions did not get the memo. The plan was to Make America Great Again, not Make America Greedy Again. And yet Sessions' directive to roll back Obama-era reforms on civil forfeiture policies amounts to little more than a government cash grab. It is a decision that is popular with neither Democrats nor Republicans, and it should be immediately reconsidered.

The broader concept behind asset forfeiture is certainly defensible. Seizing money or property that was used or acquired in a crime can be profitable for governments while, theoretically, bankrupting criminal enterprises. But that's the problem with Sessions' policies; it's not confined to convicted criminals. By returning to the practice known as "adoptive forfeiture,'' the government is allowed to seize property without even charging a person with a crime. That is the very definition of un-American.

According to Institute for Justice figures in a recent Time magazine report, the federal government seized more than $3.2 billion in cash from 2007-15 without ever filing criminal charges.

More than a dozen states, including Florida, have passed laws that limit what police can and cannot do when it comes to claiming personal property. Yet the new federal guidelines can supersede other reforms. State and local law enforcement officials will be able to seize assets and then turn them over to the federal government. The feds can pool these assets together and then send 80 percent of the value back to local agencies. This is, in essence, legalized money laundering.

Upon announcing a return to this more aggressive policy in July, Sessions said it was a necessary, and lawful, tool to fight organized crime. He said it aligned with President Donald Trump's get-tough policing policies. The Justice Department has announced some modest safeguards that supposedly will protect citizens from abuses seen in the past. But the reality is that much of the money and property seized involves relatively minor amounts. They are not coming from some vast criminal empire.

Making matters worse, citizens who have had money or property confiscated often face confusing and costly hurdles while trying to be made whole again. In one notable case, a driver was pulled over for speeding on a road in Texas known to be popular with drug smugglers. Police discovered a safe in the trunk with more than $200,000 in cash and confiscated it. The owner, who was never charged with a crime, insisted the money came from the sale of a home. Because of procedural problems, the case was not heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. That did not stop Justice Clarence Thomas from offering the opinion that "this system — where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use — has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses.''

This is not a partisan issue. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have spoken out against civil forfeiture. One of the Supreme Court's most conservative members has now blasted it. And when state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, proposed a bill in 2016 to protect citizens from civil forfeitures, it was supported by both the conservative James Madison Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union. Jeff Sessions, the nation's top law official, needs to get on board with the rest of the nation and stop abusing citizens with this fundamentally unfair policy of seizing private property.

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