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February 7, 2017

Prez Trump in sheriffs meeting expresses support for broad civil forfeiture police powers

This Washington Post report details the notable joke Prez Trump made regarding a state legislator who apparently wants to limit police civil forfeiture powers, and highlights the broader issues raised by the surrounding discussion.  Here are the details:

At a meeting on Tuesday with sheriffs from across the country, President Trump joked about destroying the career of an unnamed Texas state senator who supported curtailing a controversial police practice for seizing people's property....

Sheriff Harold Eavenson of Rockwall County, Tex., brought up the issue of civil asset forfeiture, which allows authorities to seize cash and property from people suspected, but in some cases never convicted or even charged, with a crime. Eavenson told Trump of a “state senator in Texas that was talking about legislation to require conviction before we could receive that forfeiture money.”

“Can you believe that?” Trump interjected. “And,” Eavenson went on, “I told him that the cartel would build a monument to him in Mexico if he could get that legislation passed.”

“Who's the state senator?” Trump asked. “Do you want to give his name? We'll destroy his career,” he joked, to laughter from the law enforcement officials in the room....

While many people are unfamiliar with the practice, asset forfeiture is widespread. In 2014, federal authorities alone seized over $5 billion from suspected criminals, more than the total losses to burglary that year. That number doesn't even count seizures conducted by state and local law enforcement. Critics of asset forfeiture policies say the broad leeway afforded to law enforcement officers in most states creates a system ripe for abuse....

A 2015 ACLU investigation found that Philadelphia police routinely seized what amounted to “pocket change” from some of the city's poorest residents. A 2014 Washington Post investigation found that police seized $2.5 billion in cash from motorists not charged with crimes as part of a federal program.

When told of the practice, a large majority of Americans are opposed to it. A December 2016 survey by YouGov and the libertarian Cato Institute found that 84 percent of Americans oppose taking “a person’s money or property that is suspected to have been involved in a drug crime before the person is convicted of a crime.”...

But law enforcement groups have been resolute in their support for the practice. They say seizing money from people not charged with crimes is sometimes necessary to protect public safety, particularly in cases where it may be hard to obtain a criminal conviction against a suspect.

Law enforcement groups often cast asset forfeiture as a tool for fighting drug kingpins and foreign drug cartels, as Sheriff Eavenson implied at the White House meeting. But reports of asset forfeiture abuse suffered by American citizens have become more common. Nonetheless, police have had great success in convincing state and federal lawmakers to uphold the practice.

President Trump has not spoken much about the practice, and the White House did not immediately return a request for comment. But Trump's nominee to lead the Justice Department, Sen. Jeff Sessions, has been an enthusiastic proponent of civil asset forfeiture. In a 2015 Senate hearing, Sessions said that “95 percent” of forfeitures involve suspects who have “done nothing in their lives but sell dope.”

February 7, 2017 at 11:35 PM | Permalink


I would like to see civil forfeitures applied to tax evading, traitor, left wing corporations, such as Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, the outfits owned by Carlos Slim, such as the NY Times. Just seize their assets because of their betrayal of our nation and evasion of taxation. To deter.

Apple has $290 billion in cash stashed overseas. Productive day for a Department of Justice employee to take that back. Seize their US holdings until they pay their tax bill.

Posted by: David Behar | Feb 8, 2017 7:40:43 AM

Al Franken once called this sort of "joke" as kidding on the square.

Trump is playing the role of a conservative President, so libertarians probably won't be too happy with him on this issue.

Posted by: Joe | Feb 8, 2017 10:14:37 AM

Civil forfeiture from a theoretical standpoint is not problematic--from an actual, facts on the ground standpoint, there is a lot of reining in that needs to be done.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 8, 2017 10:58:46 AM

On the merits, I can see solid arguments for the conviction requirement. (We have it in my state.) However, I always have thought that there should be some exceptions -- for example, when the defendant absconds on bond or escapes from custody thereby putting the criminal case on hold indefinitely (and in some cases essentially permanently).

There are basically two alternative justifications for why property is forfeitable: 1) the criminal should not profit from his crime; and 2) the government should be able to take the tools of his criminal conduct away from the criminal. Since both justifications rely on the fact that the owner has committed a crime (or allowed his property to be used to commit a crime), it doesn't seem outrageous to require the government to first obtain a conviction for a crime subject to certain exceptions when the unavailability of the defendant prevents the government from proceeding with a criminal case. Even then forfeiture should require proof beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime has been committed.

Posted by: tmm | Feb 8, 2017 11:02:09 AM

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