New DOJ Policy Likely to Result in Increase in Forfeitures
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced a new Department of Justice policy regarding the federal adoption of assets seized by state or local law enforcement under state law. The new policy, issued on July 19, 2017, is intended to strengthen and streamline the civil asset forfeiture program allowing a more aggressive pursuit of asset forfeiture cases and the increased sharing of proceeds of those seizures with local law enforcement.
The asset forfeiture program encompasses the seizure and sale of assets that represent the proceeds of, or were used to facilitate crimes. In other words, federal and local law enforcement remove the proceeds of crime and other assets relied upon by criminals to perpetuate their criminal activity. Those assets are then sold and the proceeds used to further law enforcement objectives. In some instances, the government can forfeit these assets even if there is no pending criminal charge.
In 2014, more than $5 billion was taken through the asset forfeiture program. Because of this high dollar amount and because of reported abuses of this forfeiture power, then-Attorney General Eric Holder in 2015 enacted new policies in an effort to limit asset forfeiture to the most serious illegal transactions. This policy was intended to specifically curtail the kind of forfeiture that allowed local police to share part of their proceeds with federal authorities, otherwise known as “equitable sharing.”
Now, Sessions has reversed this two-year-old policy. He proposes to curb the abuses by expediting notice procedures and requiring that local law enforcement agencies engage in training before participating in equitable sharing. Yet, these steps will be weighed against local law enforcement’s interest in keeping the assets they seize, a balancing test that will allow local law enforcement to circumvent tight budgets.
With equitable sharing again on the rise, it is realistic to expect forfeiture cases to continue to grow under this new policy.