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Despite bipartisan concerns, Sessions urges more civil forfeiture

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made another policy announcement, again to the dismay of criminal justice reformers and civil rights advocates. Speaking at a meeting of the National District Attorneys Association this week, he said he would again allow federal law enforcement agencies to take hold of property seized by local law enforcement.

The new policy directive is aimed at increasing forfeitures overall. As you may be aware, civil forfeiture is a process in which law enforcement seizes cash and property that officers suspect is related to or was gained from illegal activity. The seizures can take place before any charges are brought and long before a defendant is convicted or acquitted at trial.

Once property has been seized, owners have an uphill battle to fight to get it back, as the property is legally presumed tainted by illegality and must be proven innocent. If the owner doesn't fight or doesn't win a forfeiture battle, the agency that seized the property gets to keep it.

This has created bipartisan concerns that civil forfeiture tends to promote public corruption.

It does seem to be the case that police departments and federal agencies alike have been padding their budgets with the proceeds of civil forfeitures. Moreover, in 2014 the New York Times reported on police seminar videos that openly urged officers to seize valuable items, such as flat screen TVs, as often as possible.

The idea behind civil forfeiture, as Sessions notes, was that it would cripple the finances of criminal organizations. In some cases, all known property of a suspect or criminal organization is seized, effectively denying that person or group paid legal representation -- and making the taxpayer responsible for paying for their defense.

In 2015, former attorney general Eric Holder limited asset forfeitures, including prohibiting federal law enforcement from taking control over assets seized by state or local law enforcement agencies in a process euphemistically named "adoptive forfeiture." Sessions hasn't yet released his policy directive, but he did make clear that he intends to reverse that policy, including reinstating adoptive forfeiture.

"With care and professionalism we plan to develop policies to increase forfeitures," Sessions said in his speech. "No criminal should be allowed to keep the proceeds of their crime."

On Twitter, Holder called Sessions' latest reversal of an Obama-era policy "another extremist action."

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