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Justice Department Reinstates Controversial Policy On Civil Asset Forfeiture


The Trump administration is bringing back a controversial law enforcement tool that had been restricted under President Obama. It lets the federal government help local police seize property from suspected criminals even when no one's been charged with a crime. NPR's Martin Kaste has details.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Civil asset forfeiture - it's a legal maneuver that police use to seize someone's property even when there's only a suspicion that that person has broken the law. It's produced some bad headlines over the years. People have lost their cars or their savings. There was that infamous case last year of a church rock band that had $53,000 taken in Oklahoma. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions sees those as exceptions to the rule. He says most of the time, forfeiture is an effective law enforcement tool.


JEFF SESSIONS: It weakens the criminal organizations when you take their money. And it strengthens our law enforcement when we can share it together and use it to further our effort against crime.

KASTE: Sessions is bringing back something called federal adoption. Basically that's what they call it when local cops seize an asset but then handed over to the feds. It's forfeited under federal rules, and a portion is then shared back with the local police. This matters because it gives local police a possible end run around their state's forfeiture rules. And some of those states have been getting more restrictive lately.

DANIEL IVEY-SOTO: There has been a significant drop in the amount of forfeiture taking place in New Mexico since we've been requiring a conviction.

KASTE: That's Daniel Ivey-Soto, a Democratic state senator who was part of a bipartisan effort to tighten forfeiture rules in New Mexico. Other states have followed to greater or lesser degree. But Ivey-Soto says that trend is now threatened by the return of federal adoption.

IVEY-SOTO: They're looking at basically disregarding what we think is the best policy for our state and deciding what they think is better for us. And I find that offensive.

KASTE: The Justice Department says federal adoption will be a more careful process now with more checks along the way to make sure that innocent people don't lose their property. But that's cold comfort to Robert Everett Johnson. He's an attorney with the Institute for Justice, which is a group that's been campaigning to restrict civil asset forfeiture. Standing outside the Justice Department, he says having a more careful process doesn't change what he sees as the fundamental unfairness of the system.

ROBERT EVERETT JOHNSON: Attorney General Sessions said that he wants to ensure that criminals don't enjoy the proceeds of criminal activity. And nobody disagrees with that. But the problem is that civil forfeiture, by definition, involves taking property from people who have never been convicted of anything.

KASTE: While some state legislators are now coming around to share this point of view, most police chiefs insist that they need civil asset forfeiture which often provides them with crucial extra funding and a powerful weapon against organized crime and drug networks.


RON BROOKS: We are seeing our cities and towns spiral into the abyss of drug addiction and violence.

KASTE: Ron Brooks of the National Narcotics Associations Coalition (ph) was one of several law enforcement representatives who lined up at the Justice Department today to thank Attorney General Sessions. And then he added this.


BROOKS: And I want to thank you on behalf of our members for restoring support to law enforcement. For eight years, we felt that we didn't have the support of this department. And we finally feel that we do.

KASTE: Brooks wasn't the only one to say something like this. Many American law enforcement officers see this policy change as yet another sign that President Trump is on their side. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
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