What you need to know about AG Sessions’ new forfeiture policy


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(c) 2017, Brenda Grantland, Esq. 7/23/2017

On July 19, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new forfeiture policy regarding federal adoptions, Order No. 3946-2017 and Policy Directive 17-1: “Policy Guidance on the Attorney General’s Order on Federal Adoption and Forfeiture of Property Seized by State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies.”

To make sense of this order and what it does you have to put aside what you read in the newspaper articles interpreting the press release, and read the order and policy directive themselves.  (Download the order and related documents using the download buttons above.)

The one-page order is signed by Sessions. The only concrete change announced in the order is its repeal of two Obama era Attorney General policy orders issued by former Attorney General Eric Holder. This is the point most of the articles have gone ballistic on. As I explain below, that repeal is no big deal.

The details of the policy changes are set out in Policy Directive 17-1, signed by Deborah Connor, Acting Chief of the Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section of the Justice Department. It is only three pages long, but contains very specific procedures that will make major changes for the better.

On the same day, the DOJ issued a press release containing Sessions’ remarks – three pages of the usual platitudes about the virtues of asset forfeiture. Sessions’ remarks are worth dissecting, which I will do later, but let’s look at the details of the policy change first.

What federal adoption means

For those who don’t know, “federal adoption” has nothing to do with giving orphans a forever home. It is a Justice Department program, created by statute, that rewards state and local police for seizing property from citizens and turning it over to the feds for forfeiture under federal law, by giving the local police a kickback (“equitable sharing”) of up to 80% of the proceeds of the forfeiture case. See 28 U.S.C. Sec. 524(c). These state and local cops could just use their states’ forfeiture laws to forfeit property, but many prefer federal adoption to get around their state’s forfeiture laws which are more protective of property owners.

When a case is federally adopted, the forfeiture is processed in federal court, under federal forfeiture law, using federal standards, even if the forfeiture would be illegal under state law. Forfeiture opponents argue that allowing the feds to subvert local and state police into disregarding the law of their own states and instead seize property for forfeiture under federal law — by offering them up to 80% of the proceeds of the federal forfeiture.

What the policy order and directive do

1. Repeals “Obama era policy order” limiting federal adoption

The most seemingly dramatic feature of Sessions’ order is its repeal of Attorney General Order No. 3488-2015 (1/16/2015 – Holder order limiting federal adoption) and No. 3485-2015 (1/12/2015). I have not been able to find Attorney General Order No. 3485-2015. The only mention of it anywhere on line is this order repealing it.

The policy orders that Sessions repealed were issued by outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder in January 2015. Order No. 3488-2015 set specific limitations on the federal adoption of state and local police seizures. As I explained in a previous blog, Holder’s order did not do much to curb federal adoption. See Attorney General Holder’s Asset Forfeiture Policy Limiting Federal Adoption Will Not Stop the Abuses.

Holder’s policy order contained built-in loopholes that told the police how to get around the new policy. All they had to do was put a federal agent on their task force, or get a federal judge to issue a federal seizure warrant for the property and they were back to business as usual.

Less than two weeks after my blog predicting the Holder order would have little or no effect, Justice Department spokespeople admitted it would not have a substantial effect.  See the HuffPost article Justice Department Budget Projects Some Asset Forfeiture Payments Will Rise Despite Reforms. The Holder order did not even reduce federal adoption payments, as the DOJ admitted in the HuffPost article.

2. Review by a federal agency lawyer before agreeing to a federal adoption

Policy Directive 17-1 requires that the facts of each seizure be reviewed by the adopting agency’s legal counsel before agreeing to accept the federal adoption.

“To ensure that adoptions involve property lawfully seized, legal counsel at the federal agency adopting the seized property must continue to review all seizures for compliance with law, especially seizures made pursuant to an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.” Policy Directive 17-1 p. 1-2.

The directive tells the agencies to revise the forms used to request federal adoption and require the seizing cops to provide enough information to determine if there was probable cause for the seizure. The cops are also required to state on the revised form whether a turnover order was obtained, if required by state law. Policy Directive p. 2. (Only a few states have statutes requiring local police to get a turnover order from a state court judge before they can turn over property they seized to the feds for federal adoption.)

These new procedures, if actually followed, will weed out many illegal roadside forfeiture trap seizures at a very crucial time — before sending notice to claimants requiring them to file a claim within 30 days. All of the cases claimants lost by default were lost during that crucial period.

Although there was eventually a review by an Assistant U.S. Attorney before filing a forfeiture complaint in court — which would usually occur 90 days later — that review only occurs after a claimant files a claim. If the claimant defaulted before that point, there would never be a review for probable cause.

3. Additional screening procedures for seizures of $10,000 or less

The vast majority of the highway forfeiture trap cases are these smaller dollar value seizures.

They target travelers on the interstate highways, particularly those with out of state tags, and minorities. They are pulled over for a minor traffic infraction or on the ruse that they fit a vague drug courier profile. In most of those cases, little or no drugs are found and no one is arrested, yet after a search, they seize all of the cash the travelers are carrying, saying it is suspected drug proceeds.

Under the policy directive, when cash totaling $10,000 or less is seized, the seizure can be adopted only if

  • (1) the seizure was pursuant to a state warrant,
  • (2) it was seized incident to an arrest for a forfeiture triggering offense,
  • (3) it was seized at the same time as contraband was seized “relevant to the forfeiture,” or
  • (4) if the person from whom it was seized admits it was crime proceeds or intended for use to commit a crime.

Policy Directive 17-1 p. 2. If a federal agency wants to adopt a seizure that does not fit into one of those categories they have to get the approval of the U.S. Attorney’s Office first.

This is an excellent reform! Let’s hope they actually follow this policy.

Roadside forfeiture traps rake in a huge number of small dollar value seizures — with values too small for the property owner to hire a lawyer to defend. Many give up instead of filing a claim because hiring a lawyer would cost more than the value of the property. Sessions claimed that “over the last decade, four out of five administrative civil asset forfeitures filed by federal law enforcement agencies were never challenged in court.” That is probably true, but it is not because those people were all guilty, as Sessions suggested. Many defaulted because it was not cost effective to litigate in federal court over these small dollar amounts.

When the feds adopt a state or local police seizure, all money seized (and most other personal property) is sent through the administrative forfeiture process. The adopting agency sends out a notice to the property owner and they have to send in a claim within 30 days or they are in default and automatically lose their property.

When the property is forfeited by default in the administrative process no judge ever reviews the legality of the seizure. The policy directive suggests that a lawyer from the agency would review the case to determine the legality of the seizure before agreeing to adopt it (“the federal agency … must continue to review all seizures for compliance with the law….”) — but if they were already doing this, why would Sessions issue a policy order requiring it?

Also, it appears that the previous forms the local cops filled out to request adoption wouldn’t have had enough information for the federal agency to determine whether the seizure was valid.

For decades these small dollar value highway forfeiture trap cases have been nuisance cases for claimants. Now they are nuisance cases for the government!

Agency lawyers will have to plow through thousands of cases and weed out bogus seizures that they would have otherwise won by default. I can imagine agency lawyers will perform triage and drop cases that wouldn’t be cost effective to prosecute. Many of those people who would previously have lost by default will get their money back.

4. Additional scrutiny of seizures of real property

The Policy Directive warns officials to “proceed with caution” when deciding whether to waive the Department’s net equity thresholds for real estate, and in taking cases where real estate is owned by innocent people.

Their concern many not be altruistic as much as economic. Real estate can’t be put through the administrative forfeiture process where claimants so often default because it is not cost effective to hire a lawyer. The government has to work to forfeit real estate. It’s hard for the government to make profits off forfeiture if the litigation involves real estate with low equity when innocent owners and lienholders will have to be paid off.

5. Expediting the forfeiture process by 45 days

The statutes give the government 90 days after seizure to commence the administrative forfeiture process by sending notice. Sessions’ order shortens that time to 45 days.

This is not a big deal for claimants. In cases that are contested, after the claimant files a claim, the case goes to federal court where it bogs down for several years.

Because the new 45 deadline is just a policy deadline, the claimant cannot enforce it and nothing happens if they miss it. The 90 day deadline is statutory, and missing it has consequences for the government — including dismissal of the case and return of the property. I suspect that the 45 day deadline is to hurry things along so the feds don’t miss the 90 day deadline.

Other forces have begun to curtail the federal adoption program

Actually “equitable sharing” under the federal adoption program has been curtailed in recent years, but not by policy changes at the Department of Justice.

Federal legislation

A few years ago Congress put a rider in the budget appropriation bill prohibiting the DOJ from spending money from its budget on federal adoption. When the police lobby went ballistic about losing their federal sharing revenue, the DOJ found a way to get around it. They increased forfeitures in federal agency originated cases and used that money to fund the state and local cops who were feeding them forfeiture cases.

Congress has since imposed another limit on the federal adoption program which no Attorney General can override. In a budget appropriations rider Congress prohibited the DOJ from spending any money from its budget to thwart the implementation of state medical marijuana laws:

None of the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may be used, with respect to the States of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin, to prevent such States from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.

Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015, Pub. L. No. 113-235, § 538, 128 Stat. 2130, 2217 (2014). The Ninth Circuit interpreted this statute to preclude the feds from prosecuting medical marijuana providers who were in full compliance with state law legalizing and regulation medical marjuana. United States v. McIntosh, 833 F.3d 1063 (2016). That limit on prosecutions would bar federal forfeiture prosecutions as well.

State legislation restricting federal adoption

Federal adoption will also likely decrease substantially because state legislatures have been passing laws to curtail federal adoption. Unhappy with the feds’ use of federal adoption to lure state and local police into disregarding limitations on state forfeiture laws, several states have passed legislation stopping the state and local cops from receiving equitable sharing revenue for federal adoption cases that conflict with state laws.

According to a National Review article, thirteen states have passed state forfeiture reform legislation curbing federal adoptions.

California’s forfeiture reform statute, SB 443, effective January 1, 2017, bars any police force from accepting revenue from federal adoptions unless they can prove there was a conviction in the related criminal case – that is, if a criminal conviction is required under state law. Under the new law, a criminal conviction is required in a related criminal case in order to forfeit anything except cash and negotiable instruments totaling $40,000 or more. This provision was obviously meant to curb the “highway robbery” type forfeiture trap, where local cops stop travelers on the highway for minor traffic infractions (or nothing at all) and seize their cash on the ruse that it is drug proceeds or intended for use to purchase drugs – even though they found no drugs. They could never get a criminal conviction in such a case because the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt. In most of these highway forfeiture trap cases they didn’t even arrest anyone, yet their money was subjected to the civil forfeiture process.

This will likely be a very effective way to curb federal adoption. Would local police go to the trouble of mounting these highway forfeiture traps just to turn the money over to the feds and get nothing in return? This may force them to enforce their own state forfeiture laws instead!

A word or two about the accompanying press release

If you wonder how journalists could so poorly understand what Sessions order and the policy directive do, I believe it is because they only read the DOJ press release. The press release is comprised primarily of Session’ remarks, which are loaded with pro-forfeiture propaganda, such as his repeated claim that civil forfeiture targets “organized crime.” If it were “organized crime” why wouldn’t they be going after them criminally, where they could just use criminal forfeiture?

This passage is a doozy:

“When I was in the Senate, I worked with Senator Schumer to make modifications to the civil asset forfeiture program. We required probable cause for the seizure of property. And we raised the burden on the government, who has the initial burden in all of these cases, to the same preponderance of the evidence standard used in all civil cases. In addition, if the government lost the case, then the government pays attorneys’ fees. I believe those were good reforms that strengthened the program.”

Those modifications to the civil asset forfeiture program he is talking about is the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 – “CAFRA.” I can’t believe he is trying to take credit for CAFRA’s reforms!

I consulted with Representatives John Conyers and Henry Hyde in drafting CAFRA, and my organization Forfeiture Endangers American Rights lobbied for it for 8 years before it passed.

Sessions and Schumer were major opponents of forfeiture reform. They fought CAFRA’s positive reforms every inch of the way!

Once CAFRA passed in the House, Sessions and Schumer introduced a competing bill drafted by the DOJ, which added about 200 new forfeiture triggering offenses and poked huge loopholes in our due process reforms.

Because of Sessions and Schumer — and Orrin Hatch, who wouldn’t let our bill go out of his Senate committee without forcing a compromise — those 200 new offenses got added to CAFRA. Even worse, Sessions and Schumer forced the DOJ’s proposed loopholes into our reform provisions too, watering down the Hyde bill and eroding its due process reforms.

Sessions tries to take credit for the probable cause requirement, saying the modifications to the forfeiture program that he and Schumer made “required probable cause for the seizure of property.” He can’t take credit for that. The Fourth Amendment requires probable cause before property is seized.

It was nice of him — or more likely Deborah Connor, Acting Chief of the Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section — to require agency lawyers to review local police seizures for probable cause before agreeing to federal adoption. They should have been doing it all along.

Your House Is Under Arrest, 2nd edition Brenda Grantland, Esq.

  • (c) 2017 Brenda Grantland, Esq. published 1/11/2017 96,285 words. 245 pages in the full sized pdf edition. Interactive Table of Contents. Indexed, with footnotes. $14.99
    NOTE: If you purchased a copy of this ebook in pdf format and it did not have pages numbers, please go back to the download page and download a new copy - or email us and we will send you a new one. The new version also has bookmarks marking every chapter. This is the new, expanded Second edition of Brenda Grantland's first book - Your House Is Under Arrest - published in 1993. Back in 1993, federal forfeiture procedure had fewer Due Process protections and more obstacles for forfeiture victims ("claimants") trying to defend their property. After eight years of lobbying, our forfeiture reform bill, CAFRA was enacted in 2000. Some of the abuses came to an end, but new abuses cropped up. Now 16 years after CAFRA reformed the law, things are as just as bad - or even worse than before. Because there are now 200 more federal forfeiture triggering offenses, forfeiture is more widespread. Forfeiture revenue is up dramatically - from $500 million in federal forfeiture revenue in fiscal year 2001 to $5 billion in fiscal year 2014. Today, average law abiding investors have even more to fear from asset forfeiture. This book is written to educate investors and give helpful tips for avoiding forfeiture.
  • Brenda Grantland
  • 2017-01-11
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What we really need in a forfeiture reform bill – part 2A: CAFRA’s attorney’s fees provisions

(c) 2014 Brenda Grantland
from Truth and Justice Blog, 11/19/2014

CAFRA’s attorney’s fees provisions have been eviscerated by the courts; this must be fixed

In my last few blogs about forfeiture reform I told you about CAFRA’s court appointed counsel provisions, allowing some indigent claimants to be appointed lawyers at the government’s expense.

Congress also created “fee shifting” provisions in CAFRA, created to encourage defense attorneys to take on civil forfeiture cases where the claimant was not completely indigent but probably lacks enough money to litigate the case to completion. CAFRA’s fee shifting provisions require the court to order the government to reimburse the claimant for their reasonable attorneys fees if the claimant “substantially prevails.” This sounded like a great provision when the law was first passed, but after a few years it was gutted by court decisions and prosecutor shenanigans.

As a general rule, litigants in the United States must pay for their own attorneys whether they win or lose the case. This is called the “American Rule” – as opposed to the “English rule,” where the losing party pays the winning party’s attorney’s fees as well as his own. There are exceptions to this rule. Congress has enacted over 100 “fee shifting statutes” which create exceptions to the American Rule,  requiring the losing party to pay attorney’s fees of the adversary – several of which apply to forfeiture claimants. Under fee-shifting statutes, the court can – or in some situations, must (though they often don’t) – make the loser pay the winner’s attorney’s fees.


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What we really need in a forfeiture reform bill- Part IC: Court appointed counsel implemented

(c) 2014 Brenda Grantland
Truth and Justice Blog, 11/13/2014

CAFRA court appointments are a rarity

In my last blog I discussed the provisions of CAFRA (the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000) authorizing appointment of counsel for civil forfeiture claimants who are indigent, and the level of funding Congress expected to pay for these defense attorneys.  The Congressional Budget Office report for CAFRA stated:

Assuming appropriation of the necessary amounts, CBO estimates that implementing H.R. 1658 would cost $9 million over the 2001-2005 period to pay for additional costs of court-appointed counsel that would be authorized by this legislation.

Apparently that $9 million figure refers only to the projected cost of court-appointed counsel under 18 U.S.C. § 983(b)(1), which authorizes but does not require the judge to appoint counsel for indigent claimants who have charges pending for the offenses that triggered civil forfeiture.

The CBO has a separate estimate for the projected costs of court-appointed counsel for indigent claimants whose primary residence is seized, where the statute requires the appointment of counsel if the claimant requests.

H.R. 1658 also would require the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) to represent certain claimants in civil forfeiture cases and would require the federal government to reimburse the LSC for its costs. CBO estimates that this provision would increase direct spending by $5 million over the 2001-2005 period….

So how much have they actually spent to provide counsel?  I have not been able to determine that but I am certain it is a tiny fraction of the amount Congress expected them to spend on providing defense counsel.


What we really need in a forfeiture reform bill- part 1B: Appointment of counsel for indigent claimants

(c) 2014 Brenda Grantland
Truth and Justice Blog, 11/11/2014

Appointment of counsel for indigent claimants, part 1B

Yesterday I blogged about the CAFRA provisions which either authorize or require appointment of counsel for civil forfeiture claimants who are indigent, in two very narrow categories of cases, and how they are not being implemented.

Before I go on to part 2 of my list of demands for effective forfeiture reform, I wanted to show you how far short of CAFRA’s goals for providing court appointed counsel — to at least some categories of indigent forfeiture claimants — the actual practices of the courts currently are.

Congress clearly thought the appointment of counsel was very important. This is what the Committee Report of the Committee for the Judiciary said about bill H.R. 1658:


There is no Sixth Amendment right to appointed counsel for indigents in civil forfeiture cases, since imprisonment is not threatened. This is undoubtedly one of the primary reasons why so many civil seizures are not challenged. As the cochairs of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Forfeiture Abuse Task Force stated before this Committee in 1996: ‘‘The reason they are so rarely challenged has nothing to do with the owner’s guilt, and everything to do with the arduous path one must journey against a presumption of guilt, often without the benefit of counsel, and perhaps without any money left after the seizure with which to fight the battle.’’ This Committee believes that civil forfeiture proceedings are so punitive in nature that appointed counsel should be made available for those who are indigent, or made indigent by a seizure, in appropriate circumstances. H.R. 1658 provides that a federal court may appoint counsel to represent an individual filing a claim in a civil forfeiture proceeding who is financially unable to obtain representation. In determining whether to appoint counsel, the court shall take into account the claimant’s standing to contest the forfeiture and whether the claim appears to be made in good faith or to be frivolous. Compensation for appointed counsel will be equivalent to that provided for court-appointed counsel in federal felony cases. Currently, maximum compensation would not exceed $3,500 per attorney for representation before a U.S. district court and $2,500 per attorney for representation before an appellate court. These maximums can be waived in cases of “extended or complex” representation where “excess payment is necessary to provide fair compensation and the payment is approved by the chief judge of the circuit.”


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What we really need in a forfeiture reform bill- Part 1A: Provisions to improve availability of counsel

(c) 2014 Brenda Grantland
Truth and Justice Blog, 11/10/2014

As I said in earlier blogs, the pending federal forfeiture reform bills don’t go far enough.

What we really need in federal forfeiture reform legislation is to plug up the loopholes prosecutors and courts have created in the CAFRA 2000 reforms, and to expand the protections to third parties in criminal forfeiture cases.

Here are my major recommendations. I will talk about them in more detail in later blogs.

Provisions to improve availability of counsel

The impediment that most often prevents claimants from having a fighting chance in court is their inability to hire a lawyer to represent them.  Some claimants were indigent in the first place, but quite often claimants had substantial assets until the government seized all of them, or so much of them that they don’t have enough left to litigate their forfeiture cases to completion.

The Constitution’s Fifth Amendment and Due Process clauses should prevent the government from taking private property and depriving the property owner of the means to defend it, especially since forfeiture – be it civil or criminal forfeiture – is punishment (implicating the Eighth Amendment).


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