Via USA Today:
Forget Russia. I’d fire Jeff Sessions over civil forfeiture.
By Glenn Harlan Reynolds, Opinion columnist
Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to steal from you.
Oh, he doesn’t call it that. He calls it “civil forfeiture.” But what it is, is theft by law enforcement. Sessions should be ashamed. If I were president, he’d be fired.
Under “civil forfeiture,” law enforcement can take property from people under the legal fiction that the property itself is guilty of a crime. (“Legal fiction” sounds better than “lie,” but in this case the two terms are near synonyms.) It was originally sold as a tool for going after the assets of drug kingpins, but nowadays it seems to be used against a lot of ordinary Americans who just have things that law enforcement wants. It’s also a way for law enforcement agencies to maintain off-budget slush funds, thus escaping scrutiny.
As Drug Enforcement Agency agent Sean Waite told the Albuquerque Journal, “We don’t have to prove that the person is guilty. … It’s that the money is presumed to be guilty.”
“Presumed to be guilty.” Once in America, we had a presumption of innocence. But that was inconvenient to the powers that be.
The problem is pretty widespread: In 2015, The Washington Post reported that law enforcement took more stuff from people than burglars did.
And it’s not only a species of theft; it’s a species of corruption. Starting in 1984, law enforcement agencies were allowed to retain the assets they seized instead of paying them into the general treasury. Not surprisingly, this has led to abuses in which law enforcement targets individuals based on how much money it can get and how easily it can get it, not on their status as criminals. What’s more, by retaining these assets, law enforcement agencies have money to do things that the legislatures haven’t chosen to fund. That undermines democracy.
As deputy Ron Hain of Kane County, Ill., put it, according to The Post: “All of our hometowns are sitting on a tax-liberating gold mine.”
In one case, law enforcement seized a student’s luggage and money because the bags smelled like marijuana. In another, officers seized a man’s life savings because the series of deposits from his convenience store looked to them like he was laundering money.
Of course, it’s especially easy to be suspicious of people when those suspicions let you transfer their bank accounts into yours.
Some states have required that people be convicted of a crime before the government can seize their assets, but the feds have no such requirement. Congress should enact one. As the editors of National Review write:
“This is almost certainly unconstitutional, something that conservatives ought to understand instinctively. Like the Democrats’ crackpot plan to revoke the Second Amendment rights of U.S. citizens who have been neither charged with nor convicted of a crime simply for having been fingered as suspicious persons by some anonymous operative in Washington, seizing an American’s property because a police officer merely suspects that he might be a drug dealer or another species of miscreant does gross violence to the basic principle of due process.”
They’re right, and Congress should act.
In the meantime, Sessions is doing exactly the wrong thing by doubling down on asset seizure. The message it sends is that the feds see the rest of us as prey, not as citizens. The attorney general should be ashamed to take that position. And, really, he should just be gone.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor and the author of The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.