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Under pressure, Justice Department creates internal watchdog for asset forfeiture program

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is setting up a unit in the Justice Department to oversee a policy he reinstated to help state and local police take cash and property from people suspected of a crime, even if they have not been charged.

Sessions came under fire from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers when he announced the policy in July because of concerns about abuse in earlier incarnations of the asset forfeiture program. In a memo Tuesday, Sessions directed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to hire a director to review all aspects of the department’s policy and take action if problems arise.

“The asset forfeiture program has proven to be extremely valuable to law enforcement in our country, but it has received certain criticisms,” Sessions wrote in his memo.

Sessions this summer had reversed an action by former Attorney General Eric Holder to stop the program. Two years ago, Holder barred state and local police from using federal law to seize cash and other property without criminal charges or warrants.

Since 2008, thousands of police agencies around the country had made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under the program, which allowed local and state police to make seizures and then share the proceeds with federal agencies.

The Sessions policy reauthorizes what is called federal “adoption” of assets that state and local police seize – when the alleged conduct that led to the seizures appears to violate federal law.

When Sessions announced the policy last summer, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., criticized the move, calling it “a troubling step backward.” Holder said it was “another extremist action” and the ACLU called it “outrageous.”

“I’m glad that at least some safeguards will be put in place, but their plan to expand civil forfeiture is, really, just as concerning as it was before,” Issa said in a statement. “Criminals shouldn’t be able to keep the proceeds of their crime, but innocent Americans shouldn’t lose their right to due process, or their private property rights, in order to make that happen.”

A Washington Post investigation in 2014 found that since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, state and local police had seized almost $2.5 billion from motorists and others without search warrants or indictments. Police routinely stopped drivers for minor traffic infractions, pushed them to agree to searches without warrants and then seized large amounts of cash when there was no evidence the drivers had done anything wrong, the Post series found.

There was little oversight on how the police spent the money, according to The Post investigation. Sometimes, they bought luxury vehicles, high-powered firearms and armored cars.

But Rosenstein said that the Justice Department would ensure there were safeguards to prevent abuse. He told reporters in July that police departments will have to tell property owners about their rights and the status of the seizures. Police will also be required to detail the probable cause for the seizures to the Justice Department, Rosenstein said.

Rosenstein’s new director will oversee and manage compliance of both civil and criminal asset forfeiture and “promptly review” any complaints from judges, attorneys, defendants or others about and “take appropriate action,” according to Sessions’ memo.

“The Asset Forfeiture Program is one of the most effective tools Congress has provided the Department of Justice to fight crime, combat cartels and other transnational criminal organizations and take the profit out of crime,” Sessions wrote. “The American people and Congress must know this program is being administered professionally, lawfully and in a manner consistent with sound public policy.”