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Wrong way, Jeff (That’s an understatement)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to ramp up government theft of property as he intensifies the Justice Department’s refocus on all of the worst aspects of the failed War on Drugs.

Sessions said Monday that a forthcoming DOJ policy directive will make it easier for government agents to seize any property they believe has been used to in the commission of a crime.

“[W]e hope to issue this week a new directive on asset forfeiture, especially for drug traffickers,” Sessions said in rein a speech to the National District Attorneys Association.

Don’t worry though, Sessions promises the government is only going to steal Americans’ property with the utmost “care and professionalism.”

“With care and professionalism, we plan to develop policies to increase forfeitures. No criminal should be allowed to keep the proceeds of their crime. Adoptive forfeitures are appropriate as is sharing with our partners,” he said.

Of course, it’s hard to have a great deal of “care” when you’re blinded by dollar signs. And law enforcement agencies have made big bucks stealing property in the past.

The Institute for Justice’s “Policing for Profit ” report reveals just how big those blinding dollar signs can get.

This is a lengthy excerpt, but it provides a pretty good overview of the scope of the problem at both the state and federal levels:

As a measure of federal forfeiture activity, deposits can sometimes be unstable. In a given year, one or two high-dollar cases may produce unusually large amounts of money—with a portion going back to victims—thereby telling a noisy story of year-to-year activity levels. Net assets, the amount of money federal forfeiture funds retain after paying various obligations, represent a more stable metric. From 2001 to 2014, net assets in the DOJ and Treasury forfeiture funds increased 485 percent. Combined assets topped $1 billion for the first time in 2007 and ballooned to nearly $4.5 billion by 2014 .

Unfortunately, deriving similar totals at the state level is impossible because most states require little to no public reporting of forfeiture activity. However, of the states from which the Institute for Justice was able to obtain usable data, the totals are also significant. In 2012 alone, the latest year for which the most consistent data were available, state and local agencies in 26 states and the District of Columbia took in more than $254 million through forfeiture. Texas led the way, with $46 million, followed closely by Arizona with $43 million. Illinois was third with almost $20 million.

Like the federal government, states have had great success increasing forfeiture revenues under state law in the new millennium. For example, Figure 3 illustrates the growth in forfeiture revenue for 14 states from 2002 to 2013. From the first to the final year presented, total revenue increased 136 percent. Among the states, the two whose revenues were most consistent over the years, and which also tended to represent the greatest revenue shares, were Texas and California. However, Arizona’s revenue grew significantly over the period, eventually eclipsing California’s

In some cases, even when people are never convicted of the charges that resulted in the confiscation of their property, they never get their stuff back.

That’s because, as the Institute for Justice explains, civil forfeiture flips the script to guilty until proven innocent.

Civil forfeiture stacks the deck against property owners from the outset: In most jurisdictions and for most types of property, all police need to seize is “probable cause” to believe that the cash, car or other property is connected to a crime that permits civil forfeiture. And once property is seized, the onus is on owners to file a legal claim to get it back.

Sessions is a relic of the early days of the nation’s Drug War– back before it was obvious that it didn’t work. But at a time when many state legislatures and members of Congress are doing everything they can to undo the damage of heavy handed policing practices, one would think he’d take a look around and wonder why.

Of course, as a former prosecutor and U.S. senator, Sessions is far more aware of the amount of money government agencies can stack up via civil forfeiture than he understands how angry it makes Americans to realize their stuff can be charged with a crime and stolen by the government.

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