Trump administration undermines Illinois civil asset forfeiture reforms

Hilary Gowins

VP of comms @illinoispolicy. Likes dogs and basketball.

Hilary Gowins
July 22, 2017

Trump administration undermines Illinois civil asset forfeiture reforms

The reinstatement of a federal asset forfeiture program marks a step backward for civil asset forfeiture reform.

Shortly after the Illinois General Assembly passed reforms to the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws – which allow law enforcement to seize cash and property from people who hadn’t been convicted of a crime – U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions revived a federal asset forfeiture program the Obama administration halted in 2015.

Sessions made his announcement July 19. The program, known as “adoptive forfeiture,” allows a state or local law enforcement agency to seize property under state law, and to have federal officials forfeit the seized property under federal law.

Unfortunately, as The Wall Street Journal has pointed out, this policy allows local law enforcement to “evade the laws in 14 states that bar asset forfeiture absent a criminal conviction.”

Furthermore, this program allows federal agencies and local police to share revenues from the forfeited assets, which encourages more seizures.

The program has been a moneymaker in the past. The Washington Post wrote: “In the 12 months before Attorney General Eric Holder shut down the program in 2015, state and local authorities took in $65 million that they shared with federal agencies, according to an analysis of federal data by the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that represents forfeiture defendants.”

It is worth noting that Sessions did include some minor safeguards. For instance, the Department of Justice can adopt smaller seizures of cash, between $5,000 and $10,000, only if there is “some level of criminality or with the express concurrence of the U.S. Attorney’s office.”

Still, this is a minimal protection against abuse for a program that shouldn’t exist at all.

Another problem The Wall Street Journal noted is that there is no proof adoptive forfeiture actually helps prevent crime:

“In March the Justice Department Inspector General released a report on cash seizures and forfeiture. It focused in particular on the Drug Enforcement Agency, which accounted for 80% of Justice’s cash seizures from 2007 to 2016. 

“The IG found a fundamental problem. Because Justice has no ‘seizure-specific metrics’ to evaluate how these seizures and forfeitures relate to criminal investigations, no one knows. In a sample of 100 cash seizures, the DEA could verify only 44 that ‘advanced or were related to criminal investigations.’” 

Time will tell how this decision will play out in Illinois. But the attorney general’s announcement certainly puts a damper on Illinois’ recent reforms.

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