Imagine if police could seize your property without charging you with a crime. That might sound crazy, but in most of the country it’s perfectly legal. It’s called civil asset forfeiture, and it’s a nightmare that many innocent Americans have had to deal with.
The way it works is that police charge the property itself with a crime instead of the individual. If you’re an innocent victim of forfeiture, there is little legal recourse to get your property back. For starters, you have to prove you were not involved in or had any knowledge of criminal activity. That’s in contrast to the rest of the criminal justice system, where you’re innocent until proven guilty.
Unfortunately, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for attorney general does not support reforming forfeiture laws. Jeff Sessions, who once said “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” has been a strong supporter of the forfeiture status quo.
In an April 2015 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sessions was one of the senators who spoke out against any type of forfeiture reform that increased the burden of proof on the government before they seized property. Sessions called it “unthinkable that we would make [the standard of proof] harder” and said that “[asset forfeiture] is perfectly appropriate as you try to deter illegal behavior.”
Sessions also dismissed the civil liberties concerns of forfeiture reformers. He said civil asset forfeiture was not “taking somebody’s liberty.”
Sessions even dismissed the idea that innocent Americans were being victimized by civil asset forfeiture, describing most people who have had their property seized by police as having “done nothing in their lives but sell dope.”
In September 2015, the Daily Signal ran a story featuring at least four instances where innocent people had their property confiscated by police with no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Sessions may not have been aware of that since it was released after the Senate’s forfeiture reform hearing, but in January 2015, the Daily Caller ran another report detailing seven different civil asset forfeiture abuses.
Among those stories profiled by the Caller was Tan Nguyen, who had his $50,000 in casino winnings seized by a cop in Nevada. Nguyen was never charged with or even suspected of a crime. Fortunately, unlike most civil asset forfeiture cases, Nguyen’s has a happy ending: he was able to get his money back.
Sessions will have to face tough questions about his stance on forfeiture. He’s certain to be grilled by Utah Senator Mike Lee, who also pressed current Attorney General Loretta Lynch on the issue. He may also face tough questions from Arizona Senator Jeff Flake and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, both of whom have supported forfeiture reform in the past.
It remains disturbing that President-elect Trump selected someone so cavalier about the use of government power and so dismissive of civil liberties concerns. It makes you wonder how respectful a Trump administration will be about the limits on its power.