The United States Attorney General has come out with new policy guidelines that will increase the use of asset forfeiture in drug related cases. In a memorandum July 19, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions reiterated his earlier position with an official policy memorandum that explains the position and why he thinks it is effective.
He makes it clear in the memo that the new guidelines will take effect immediately. In the memo Sessions stated:
“As any of these law enforcement partners will tell you and as President Trump knows well, civil asset forfeiture is a key tool that helps law enforcement defund organized crime, take back ill-gotten gains, and prevent new crimes from being committed, and it weakens the criminals and the cartels. Even more importantly, it helps return property to the victims of crime. Civil asset forfeiture takes the material support of the criminals and instead makes it the material support of law enforcement, funding priorities like new vehicles, bulletproof vests, opioid overdose reversal kits, and better training. In departments across this country, funds that were once used to take lives are now being used to save lives.”
It’s arguably unconstitutional to take property without due process. Of course, regional drug enforcement teams nationwide have used asset forfeiture for their own gains for decades, and used still on medical marijuana grows and dispensaries in states that have legalized medical use. Recent years has shown a decline in the practice surrounding state licensed marijuana cultivation and distribution, but the promise to increase the tactic is making the cannabis industry in legal states take notice.
The practice has been a profit motive for local law enforcement, who are allowed to keep the property seized. It can include real land, automobiles, and any other items of value associated with a person that is merely suspected of committing drug crimes, including marijuana related crimes. It is so prevalent that in 2014, using this arcane law, America’s police forces stole more property than burglars!
“President Trump has directed this Department of Justice to reduce crime in this country, and we will use every lawful tool that we have to do that,” Session’s also stated in the memo. “We will continue to encourage civil asset forfeiture whenever appropriate in order to hit organized crime in the wallet.”
Even though fully 20% of the forfeiture cases are challenged in court, Sessions believes the practice of asset seizing is appropriate and effective. But, he did show a modicum of concern for people that may be a victim of police overreach, stating, “Even so, we must take every precaution to protect the rights of claimants in that small minority of cases.”
13 states now have a conviction requirement to seize assets from individuals. But, with the Department of Justice pushing this tactic hard, it will be interesting to see how states respond.
In one example of overreach, Michigan authorities raided a medical marijuana business suspecting they were out of compliance with the states medical marijuana laws. According to testimony before a Michigan legislative committee in 2015, they took all their property from a woman that was essentially a “soccer mom.”
“After they breached my door, at gunpoint, with masks,” Annette Shattuck said in the hearing. “They proceeded to take every belonging in my house. And when I say every belonging, I mean every belonging.”
Michigan legislators have been working to change the forfeiture laws, but have not made the progress many would like. State Representative Peter Lucido is one of those lawmakers and he posted a guest article on M Live explaining the problem:
“Let’s take a second and think about that concept. We live in a country that says you are innocent until proven guilty, but we can take someone’s property before they are even convicted, much less charged with a crime and then make them pay to maybe get it back? This is not justice, this is cruelty, disproportionately impacting lower-income individuals.”
All the legal marijuana states should have asset forfeiture laws that require conviction, at a minimum. The practice is draconian and goes against the civil rights of people and the concept of innocent until proven guilty. Check your states asset forfeiture laws and, if needed, contact your local legislator to get changes made. It’s time law enforcement was held accountable for their actions and not profiting from unnecessary and unwarranted overreach.