Clete Wetli, Contributor
Although most everyone in America agrees that the War on Drugs has been a tragic failure, Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to reinvigorate every aspect of it including the much derided D.A.R.E. program and, most alarming, the expansion of civil asset forfeiture by police. For those unfamiliar with civil asset forfeiture, it’s the ability of law enforcement to confiscate money or property they believe was obtained through criminal means even if the suspect has not been charged or found guilty of a crime.
Essentially, the police claim is against the money or property itself and not against the criminal suspect, which means that for a person to retrieve their money or property they must prove that these things were acquired legally. Well, so much for “innocent until proven guilty”!
Over the last several years, there has been bipartisan support to curtail civil asset forfeiture because studies have shown that it is abused regularly by law enforcement and because of cases that have gained notoriety showing just how difficult and expensive it is for innocent people to recover their money or property.
In some states, like Alabama, the only thing law enforcement needs to confiscate assets is to meet the legal low bar of “probable cause”. Worse, law enforcement agencies are incentivized to engage in these forfeitures because they get to keep the lion’s share of the money. In most cases, the forfeitures are never challenged due to the significant expenses involved, the substantial burden of proof on the plaintiff, and the time it takes to have the case heard in court.
This whole misguided idea was part of the War on Drugs’ strategy to penalize suspected drug dealers by having a legal mechanism to seize their ill-gotten gains. But, like so many aspects of the Drug War, it was an assault on constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties. Things like no-knock warrants, racial profiling, excessive sentencing, and legally ambiguous entrapment and surveillance.
After spending mountains of money on the War on Drugs, America finally realized that the only thing they had to show for their effort was a prison system bursting at the seams and a law enforcement community that looked like military Stormtroopers that increasingly shoot first and asked questions later. During the Obama years, there became bipartisan support to spend more resources on drug treatment instead of mass incarceration. Also, many of the laws that were passed during the War on Drugs were repealed, softened, or dramatically changed to ensure fairness in the judicial process.
All of this long overdue progress came to a screeching halt when Trump picked Jeff Sessions as his Attorney General. Much like the advocates of abstinence-only sex education, Sessions doesn’t rely on evidence-based practices or analytical studies for his policy agenda, instead he relies almost exclusively on his archaic instincts and prejudices. Further, Sessions hasn’t the least bit of compassion and views the criminal justice system as a mechanism to deliver only the harshest punishments.
So, it’s not a surprise that Sessions would attempt to reverse the tidal wave of restrictions that are being placed on civil asset forfeiture in most states. Who knows, maybe he’ll be advocating tar and feathering next.
It’s time that we put some common sense into our nation’s struggle with substance abuse. It’s time that we start holding police accountable for their misdeeds when they occur. As a nation, we cannot afford to revive the epic failures of the War on Drugs. A good place to start would be to eliminate civil asset forfeiture altogether and only seize assets in the case of criminal convictions. Isn’t that what the Constitution was referring to in the first place?
Right now, civil asset forfeiture is nothing more than government sponsored theft regardless of its intention. Yeah, we remember the name of the road that’s paved with those intentions, don’t we?