Police agencies applaud DOJ move to ramp up asset seizures

Move comes as states crack down on forfeiture abuses

Georgia law enforcement agencies lost access to millions of dollars in potential funding when the U.S. Department of Justice in 2015 all but shut down a practice criticized as encouraging policing for profit.

Now state law enforcement leaders are welcoming U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Wednesday announcement that the department is reinstating “adoptive forfeiture.” Effective immediately, the federal government will help state and local police agencies keep cash or other assets they have seized on suspicion of ties to state crimes. Agencies can keep such property permanently even if no one is ever convicted.

New safeguards will help prevent abuses, the department said in a directive to U.S. attorneys and other Justice Department officials announcing the new policy.

Supporters said this new Justice Department policy on adoptions ensures that drug traffickers and gang members will pay — literally.

“It will result in more arrests and getting drugs off the street,” said Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police Executive Director Frank Rotondo.

Anything the attorney general says “to allow law enforcement to use the ill-gotten gains of criminals is a good thing,” said Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association. Agencies in this state have used the funds to pay for bulletproof vests, squad cars and other equipment.

But the policy reversal flies in the face of reforms passed by a growing number of states with bipartisan support, including Georgia. Institute for Justice attorney Dan Alban warned that it “opens the door to more forfeiture abuse.”

“Any of the safeguards the DOJ claims it is instituting are insufficient,” said Alban, whose public-interest law firm advocates for forfeiture reform.

The Obama administration policy prohibited federal adoptions of seizures except for property directly related to public safety concerns, such as explosives, firearms and property associated with child pornography.

For a time, federal payments to local agencies were suspended. Between 2014 and 2016, payments to Georgia agencies declined by about $13.2 million, according to Department of Justice figures. The number of assets seized nationwide dropped 13 percent in that same period.

“It really hurt us,” said Marietta Chief of Police Dan Flynn. Local agencies get to keep as much as 80 percent of the proceeds of an adoption. Federal authorities keep the rest for performing administrative and legal work.

Rotondo, Flynn and others expect these payments to rise under the new federal policy.

“Even if you make the same number of arrests, the amount will go up because you have an arrest and seizure now,” Rotondo said.

Critics argue that federal adoptions allow local agencies to make an end run around some of the tighter state rules implemented in recent years after media reports and other research found evidence of abuses. In some cases, law enforcement could confiscate and keep property even when the owner wasn’t prosecuted for a crime or found not guilty.

Georgia enacted new reporting and transparency requirements in 2015, after the AJC reported on cases where officers took cash from motorists without evidence a crime took place.

Arizona, Connecticut and California have all approved reforms in the past 12 months, while the Illinois General Assembly passed a reform bill last month that awaits signature by that state’s governor.

On the federal level, Republican lawmakers including Congressman Darrell Issa of California have championed legislation to reform asset forfeiture. A March review by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General found that certain seizures "may pose potential risks to civil liberties."

Less than half of the seizures reviewed advanced a criminal investigation or led to an arrest, new investigation or prosecution, the Inspector General found.

“Law enforcement creates the appearance, and risks the reality, that it is more interested in seizing and forfeiting cash than advancing an investigation or prosecution,” the review said.

The new federal policy permits DOJ agencies to adopt all types of assets seized lawfully by state or local law enforcement “whenever the conduct giving rise to the seizure violates federal law,” the directive states.

Priority should be given to assets that will advance Sessions’ strategy for reducing violent crime, says the directive, which was obtained by CBS News and posted on Twitter. With amounts of $10,000 or less, the federal agency may typically adopt the seizure only if the U.S. Attorney’s Office agrees.

Among the safeguards in the revived program, legal counsel at any federal agency that adopts a seizure must review it to ensure it was lawful, especially when a seizure is made without a search warrant. State and local agencies must assist the review, the directive said.

State and local law enforcement agencies are to request federal review of their seizures within 15 calendar days, and the federal agency is to send notice to interested parties within 45 days of the seizure. These time limits may be extended for good cause.

Law enforcement agencies participating in the DOJ asset forfeiture program also must train their officers each year on state and federal asset forfeiture laws.