There were many good reasons to oppose Jeff Sessions as President Trump’ nominee to be the next Attorney General. One, which I focused on, was that his nomination foolishly fed into the Democratic slur that Trump and the Republicans were racists. Sessions had been successfully tarred decades ago based on some racially-insensitive comments he had made, and even though tangible evidence of any racial bias was thin, it was foolish for Trump to court a controversy when there were plenty of equally or more qualified candidates. Another reason was that Sessions had been an early supporter of Trump’s candidacy for the GOP nomination, which is signature significance for stupidity, poor judgment or recklessness. Take your pick.
Now Sessions has announced, while speaking at a National District Attorneys Association conference, that the Justice Department will issue new directives to increase the federal government’s use of civil asset forfeiture, an unethical, Constitutionally dubious practice that needs to be cut back or eliminated.
“[W]e hope to issue this week a new directive on asset forfeiture—especially for drug traffickers,” Sessions said. “With care and professionalism, we plan to develop policies to increase forfeitures. No criminal should be allowed to keep the proceeds of their crime. Adoptive forfeitures are appropriate as is sharing with our partners.”
Utah’s Republican Senator Mike Lee expressed alarm at Sessions’ announcement yesterday, saying in a statment, “As Justice Thomas has previously said, there are serious constitutional concerns regarding modern civil asset forfeiture practices. The Department has an obligation to consider due process constraints in crafting its civil asset forfeiture policies.” Justice Clarence Thomas’ had written in his dissent in an asset forfeiture case last month that forfeiture operations “frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings.”
The libertarian magazine “Reason,” which has consistently opposed civil forfeiture as it is now used, investigated more than 23,000 police seizures in Cook County, Illinois over the last five years and found that Chicago’s poor neighborhoods were hit hardest by asset forfeiture. An investigation of Mississippi court records showed that law enforcement engaged in many abusive seizures. In 2014, an investigative series by the Washington Post found that warrantless police seizures of cash and property resulted in the government taking more property from Americans than burglars did.
The slow but steady realization that civil asset forfeiture is a scam—police department budgets are swelled by what they take and auction off—has prompted many states to pass asset forfeiture reform in recent years. Former Attorney General Eric Holder began the process of reforming the Justice Department’s participation in civil forfeiture in 2015, as the Post reported,
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr….barred local and state police from using federal law to seize cash, cars and other property without proving that a crime occurred.Holder’s action represents the most sweeping check on police power to confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades ago as part of the war on drugs.Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under a civil asset forfeiture program at the Justice Department called Equitable Sharing.The program has enabled local and state police to make seizures and then have them “adopted” by federal agencies, which share in the proceeds. The program allowed police departments and drug task forces to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds of the adopted seizures, with the rest going to federal agencies.
Ethics Alarms first published an essay condemning the practice in 2012.
Sessions has long been an advocate of civil asset forfeiture. The Democrats could have, should have, indeed had an obligation to, confront Sessions on this issue in his confirmation hearings, if for no other reason than to educate the American public. (Senator Mike Lee and other Republicans should have grilled Sessions on it as well.) The issue was barely touched upon. All the Democrats were interested in was pandering to their race-baiting base and to make the confirmation about Sessions’ alleged racial bias. As usual, the party’s race obsession blotted out the sun and the light: his support for the outrageous practice of civil asset forfeiture alone should have sunk his nomination.
The mainstream news media was similarly so focused on race, being constrained by Democratic talking point memos, perhaps, that it neglected substance. The main voices raised against Sessions’ civil forfeiture support were conservatives, like George Will , and the Wall Street Journal editors.
Who knows? Maybe if Sessions’ hearings had explained this abusive practice that mostly affects average Americans, President Trump would have learned the truth about civil forfeiture—how sure are you that he really knows what it is and how it works?—,tweeted that Sessions was not one of “the best people” after all, and pulled his nomination.
Graphic: This is common sense