Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he will not issue a formal review of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) civil asset forfeiture policy Wednesday, claiming that forfeiture is “sound policy.”
Sessions made the statement to Republican Sen. Mike Lee during his Wednesday hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Lee expressed skepticism of the DOJ forfeiture program, which allows law enforcement officers to seize and keep private property without proving or even alleging criminal action by the property owner. Lee called for a formal review of the forfeiture program and criticized Sessions for expanding the program in July. Sessions claimed that the newly-announced Director of Asset Forfeiture Accountability would ensure the power was being used responsibly.
“I am aware of the concerns you and others have,” Sessions told Lee, adding that his expansion of the forfeiture program was only a restoration of previous law that had been altered by former AG Eric Holder under then-President Barack Obama’s administration.
The new accountability director position also raises questions. Sessions said the position will “review and coordinate all aspects of the Department’s Asset Forfeiture Program.” This installs the director as both the watcher and the watched with regard to forfeiture practices, a structure that worries critics like Lee.
Once appointed, the new director will review federal guidelines for law enforcement agents. The forfeiture guidelines for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents leaked last week, revealing a robust fundraising program. The 71-page document instructed agents to prioritize valuable property for seizure.
“If there is not enough net equity to justify seizure and forfeiture, is there an overriding law enforcement reason to justify the seizure (e.g., a vehicle with a smuggling compartment, a firearm in the possession of a felon)? In these cases, the value of the item may be of secondary importance,” the document reads, implying that the value of the property defaults as the primary factor.
The document goes on to direct agents to run an appraisal on private property before deciding whether to take it. Agents are to hire private contractors to run accurate appraisals and, if the property is worth enough, begin the forfeiture process. (RELATED: Police In These States Have The Most Freedom To Take Your Stuff)
The Department of Homeland Security put $3.6 billion into the federal forfeiture treasury between 2003 and 2013. More than $1 billion of those funds came from ICE.
The leaked handbook also lists ways for agents to prevent property owners from defending their property from forfeiture. The handbook lists four defenses that agents must “prepare for:” “‘The innocent owner’ defense; entrapment; duress; and undue delay in bringing the forfeiture action.”
The handbook goes on to say that the innocent owner defense is “by far the most frequently utilized.”
“Asset forfeiture is an essential element of comprehensive and effective law enforcement as it deprives transnational criminal organizations of their illicitly obtained assets,” an ICE representative told The Intercept. The forfeiture of assets can be and is utilized as a sanction in criminal, civil, and administrative investigative activities.”