by Brenda Grantland, Esq., 2/3/2017, updated 2/8/2017
(c) 2017 Brenda Grantland
Hold onto your house, cars, and bank accounts. Senator Jeff Sessions was just confirmed as Attorney General! Sessions is not only a staunch supporter of the Drug War, but an aggressive advocate for expanding asset forfeiture and resisting due process reforms.
Back in the 1990s I spent years lobbying for reform of forfeiture laws on behalf of the nonprofit organization Forfeiture Endangers American Rights (“FEAR”). Senator Jeff Sessions was one of our worst enemies of forfeiture reform. After 8 years of lobbying, our ideal forfeiture reform bill HR 1658 – sponsored by the late Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich) – passed in the House of Representatives in June 1999, by a vote of 375 to 48.
Before Rep. Hyde could get a Senate version of HR 1658 introduced, the DOJ got Senator Jeff Sessions to introduce a competing bill to counter the reforms of the Hyde bill. Senate Bill 1701 was the DOJ’s dream bill – it was most likely written by the DOJ. It started with some of the provisions of the Hyde bill but watered down the Hyde bill’s reforms, creating huge loopholes so that most people did not qualify for the due process reforms. Some of Sessions’ bill’s provisions were worse than current law. For FEAR’s point by point comparison of the two bills see this link.
The sponsors of S-1701 were Senators Jeff Sessions (R. Ala.) and Charles Schumer (D. N.Y.). The cosponsors are: Strom Thurmond (R. S.C.), Joseph Biden (D. Del.), Jesse Helms (R. N.C.), Diane Feinstein (D. Cal.) and Max Cleland (D. Ga.). All of the cosponsors other than Helms and Cleland were on the Senate Judiciary Committee, through which our forfeiture reform bill would have to pass.
These seven senators forced a compromise between the Hyde bill and the Sessions bill which watered down the Hyde reforms and added hundreds of new forfeiture triggering offenses. The compromise bill passed both houses and became CAFRA, which is still in effect today.
Now that Sessions is Attorney General, expect forfeiture enforcement – and forfeiture legislation – to get worse. And he will have stauch pro-forfeiture allies in both houses of Congress. The 1999 Sessions’ bill’s other sponsor, Chuck Schumer, is now Democratic leader of the Senate, and cosponsor Diane Feinstein is now ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sessions has not softened his stance in the 17 years since CAFRA passed. As Forbes Magazine reported, during a May 2015 Judiciary Committee hearing on civil asset forfeiture,
Sessions … declared that he was “very unhappy” with criticism of civil asset forfeiture. He went on to say that he thought “taking and seizing and forfeiting, through a government judicial process, illegal gains from criminal enterprises is not wrong.” Furthermore, he declared, “95 percent” of forfeiture cases involve criminals who’ve “done nothing in their lives but sell dope.”
Sessions Has No Problem With Civil Asset Forfeiture — And That’s A Problem, by George Leef, 1/2/2017, Forbes Magazine. Sessions’ claim that 95% of forfeiture cases involve criminals who have done nothing but sell dope is patently false. First of all, only a fraction of forfeiture cases involve drug offenses. There are over 400 forfeiture triggering offenses now, thanks largely to Sessions and the Senate Judiciary Committee compromise of CAFRA. Secondly, civil forfeiture does not require a criminal conviction, or even any criminal charges before property can be targeted – so these are not necessarily “criminals” who are losing their property. The vast majority of forfeiture victims are not charged with any crime. A comprehensive 10-month survey conducted by the Pittsburgh Press determined that “80 percent of the people who lost property to the federal government were never charged.” “Presumed Guilty, the Law’s Victims in the War on Drugs,” a series of articles by Andrew Schneider and Mary Pat Flaherty, beginning August 11 – December 22, 1991 in the Pittsburgh Press. More recent articles in other newspapers are still quoting that 80% figure, although it is impossible to verify because the DOJ doesn’t keep track of the correlation between civil forfeiture claimants and criminal cases.
In the 2015 interview Sessions disputed the claim that allowing police to keep the property they seize and forfeit creates a conflict of interest, saying there is “nothing wrong with having the money be given to the officers who helped develop the case.” Most citizens would disagree with him. Allowing the police to profit from the property they seize creates a conflict of interest, and a very serious one, especially now that police agencies depend on asset forfeiture as a funding source.
Asset forfeiture laws allow the government to strip forfeiture victims of their assets before trial, including the funds needed to defend themselves. With over 400 forfeiture triggering offenses to choose from, and no requirement of even any criminal charges, this creates a very devastating weapon which government agents can use arbitrarily to target virtually anyone.
For more about asset forfeiture abuses and how your property is vulnerable, see my new ebook, Your House Is Under Arrest, 2nd edition, published 1/11/2017.