EDITORIAL: Inspector general report hightlights forfeiture abuses at the Department of Justice

A U.S. Department of Justice watchdog has concluded that federal law enforcement officials have taken billions in cash from people who were never convicted of wrongdoing.

None of this will surprise critics of the pernicious practice know as civil forfeiture. But let’s hope it stimulates Congress and states such as Nevada to rein in the tactic, under which police may seize homes, cars, cash and other valuables from those they merely suspect of being involved in criminal activity. Prosecutors may then initiate forfeiture proceedings against the confiscated property.

To exacerbate this assault on due process and property rights, police agencies in most cases are able to keep a portion of the proceeds generated by forfeited assets, which creates an incentive for them to pursue such cases above more pressing priorities. Innocent owners who try to recover their cash or goods face an expensive and time-consuming process in which the standards of evidence favor the state.

The DOJ’s inspector general found that the DEA seized $4.5 billion in assets during fiscal years 2007-16, the Wall Street Journal reported this week. From that activity, the inspector general examined a pool of 100 cash seizures conducted in 2012 without a warrant and found the DEA could verify that only 44 “helped advance an investigation,” the Journal noted.

“When seizure and administrative forfeitures do not ultimately advance an investigation or prosecution,” the inspector general concluded, “law enforcement creates the the appearance, and risks the reality, that it is more interested in seizing and forfeiting cash than advancing an investigation.”

The Journal reported that officials in the Justice Department’s criminal division responded by calling the report outdated and incomplete. They argued that 81 of the sampled forfeitures were “likely tied” to a criminal investigation or prosecution.

Such a response is hardly reassuring. In the first place, the department’s standard of “likely tied” hardly inspires confidence in the integrity of the system. And even if 81 of the 100 seizures led to successful prosecutions, that still leaves 19 percent of the cases in which federal agents essentially stole cash from people who were never charged with any crimes. That’s wrong.

The Institute for Justice, a D.C.-area law firm that for years has shined a light on forfeiture abuses, noted that of the nearly 100,000 cash seizures since 2007, some 81 percent, with a value of $3.2 billion, involved administrative proceedings, “meaning without charging someone with a crime or any judicial oversight.” This is a recipe for injustice and abuse.

A number of states in recent years have reformed their civil forfeiture statutes in order to provide more protections for innocent citizens. That’s good news and Nevada should join them. Ultimately, however, Congress must also act to ensure that nobody loses his or her property or cash in a forfeiture proceeding before the government obtains a criminal conviction.

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