Asset Forfeiture: What Is It, and Why Should You Care?

This week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he’ll be issuing a new directive on asset forfeiture.

In a quote from his speech to the National District Attorneys Association in Minneapolis, Sessions said, “With care and professionalism, we plan to develop policies to increase forfeitures. No criminal should be allowed to keep the proceeds of their crime.”

While almost everyone can agree that “no criminal should be allowed to keep the proceeds of their crime,” not everyone agrees that asset forfeiture is the appropriate way to ensure criminals don’t reap the benefits they receive by breaking the law.


What is asset forfeiture, anyway?

Asset forfeiture is a practice that gives law enforcement the right to take the money and property of anyone who is suspected of committing a crime, with no promise of ever giving anything back. It’s a widespread practice; federal, state and local law enforcement agencies all partake in it.

Usually, words like “asset forfeiture” get quickly passed over by the general public. At face value, it doesn’t sound interesting or relevant to your daily life, but this issue is something everyone should care about.  


Why should I care about criminals not getting to keep the money or property they got from breaking the law?

The problem that critics have with asset forfeiture is that the practice almost encourages its own abuse. Law enforcement officers at all levels are allowed to seize pretty much anything from anyone they suspect has committed a crime.

That’s right, they only have to suspect you’ve committed a crime in order to take your money and property. No conviction is required. No fair trial. No judge. No jury. Starting to understand why criminal justice groups and many in the general population criticize the practice?

What’s worse is that in many states, officers are allowed to keep any cash that they seize, creating what’s characterized by critics as a profit motive for the abuse of the practice.


But surely law enforcement officers don’t actually take someone’s money and property without good reason, right?

Well, that depends entirely on what you define as “good reason.”

For example, a Michigan drug task force once raided the home of a self-described “soccer mom”, taking tools, a bicycle and even her daughter’s birthday money. Their reasoning? They suspected that the mom wasn’t in compliance with the state’s medical marijuana law.

In 2016, Oklahoma police seized $53,000 owned by a Christian band, an orphanage and a church after stopping a man on a highway for a broken taillight. No crime worthy of taking away anyone’s property (least of all that of a religious organization and an orphanage) was committed, yet under asset forfeiture directives, it was legal for police to take everything.

Since 2007, the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) alone has taken over $3 billion from people who were never charged with a crime, according to the Justice Department’s Inspector General. In 2014 alone, federal law enforcement officers took more property away from citizens than burglars did.


Is no one doing anything to stop this?

States have started to clamp down on the practice. According to Robert Everett Johnson of the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that represents forfeiture defendants, “thirteen states now allow forfeiture only in cases where there’s been a criminal conviction.”

Under Obama’s administration, Attorney General Eric Holder’s office also issued a memo denouncing a particularly questionable type of forfeiture called “adoptive” forfeiture, which allowed local police to share part of their forfeiture proceeds with federal authorities. Basically, it allowed state and local authorities to sidestep occasionally stricter state laws, processing cases under a more lax federal statute.  

These measures did little to reduce the amount of overall forfeitures, but they were a step in the right direction. Many criminal justice groups on the left and right applauded the efforts to curtail abuses.


How does Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s announcement change anything?

In his speech, Sessions arguably called out adoptive forfeitures as an area for potential expansion.

“Adoptive forfeitures are appropriate, as is sharing with our partners.” That statement basically confirms that this new directive will involve helping state and local law enforcement bypass Obama Administration reforms.

"This is a federalism issue," said the Institute for Justice's Johnson. Any return to federal adoptive forfeitures would "circumvent limitations on civil forfeiture that are imposed by state legislatures.”

The Department of Justice did not return a request for comment.


What should I do if I believe my property has been wrongly seized by law enforcement?

Call a lawyer immediately! You can always call our offices and ask to speak to one of us; we offer a free initial consultation


Talk to your local district attorney’s office, and call your state Senators and Representatives about this issue and where you stand. Your voice matters.