Justice Department to create post overseeing asset forfeiture program
By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed the agency on Tuesday to hire an asset forfeiture oversight chief, just months after he reinstated a program shut down by the Obama administration that lets police seize cash from crime suspects.
In a memo to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Sessions instructed him to create a position for a director of asset forfeiture accountability who will be responsible for ensuring compliance with the program’s rules.
“The American people and Congress must know this program is being administered professionally, lawfully and in a manner consistent with sound public policy,” Sessions wrote.
In July, the Justice Department revived a civil asset forfeiture policy that allows local, state and federal police to seize cash and other assets from people if they have probable cause to believe a crime was committed.
Under the policy, the government can seize assets from people even if they are never convicted of any crime. In an arrangement with the Justice Department, law enforcement agencies can keep some of the assets they seize.
The Obama administration had rolled back the policy in 2015, amid widespread criticism that it was creating incentives for police forces to seize funds and trampling people’s rights.
The new policy has also stirred criticism, including from many of Sessions’ fellow Republicans.
In addition to concerns about due process, many lawmakers have expressed alarm that the department’s policy lets local police departments seize assets from suspects even in states where such forfeiture practices are banned by state law.
A number of Republicans in the House of Representatives sought recently to block funding for the civil asset forfeiture program by tucking amendments into a broader spending package.
Sessions is scheduled to appear on Wednesday for a Justice Department oversight hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The committee’s chairman, Senator Charles Grassley, has been highly critical of civil asset forfeiture.
After Sessions reinstated the policy, Grassley issued a statement saying he had concerns and urged the Justice Department to ensure there was adequate oversight of the program.
Last month, Grassley’s office issued a memo to Sessions that accused the U.S. Marshals Service of wasting money from the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture fund.