AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Susan Walsh

Jeff Sessions to face tough questions over civil asset forfeiture

Updated
Since Donald Trump announced his plans to nominate Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to be the next Attorney General, Sessions’ critics have largely focused on his controversial civil-rights record. It’s not a bad idea – the Alabama’s Republican’s background on race is deeply problematic – though there’s little to suggest it’s likely to derail Sessions’ confirmation process.

There is, however, a different issue that Sessions and his backers may not be fully prepared for. As the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page noted today, the senator’s position on civil asset forfeiture deserves much closer scrutiny.
The all-too-common practice allows law enforcement to take private property without due process and has become a cash cow for state and local police and prosecutors. Under a federal program called “equitable sharing,” local law enforcement can team up with federal authorities to seize property in exchange for 80% of the proceeds.

Assets are often seized—and never returned—without any judicial process or court supervision. Unlike criminal forfeiture, civil forfeiture doesn’t require a criminal conviction or even charges…. Civil-rights activists have campaigned for years to end forfeiture abuses. But in a 2015 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Sessions defended the practice.
In fact, Sessions expressed his support for civil forfeiture with great enthusiasm, insisting last year that he’s “very unhappy” with the bipartisan criticism of the practice, which he said only adversely affects people who have “done nothing in their lives but sell dope.”

George Will, the conservative Washington Post columnist, noted over the holiday weekend that when it comes to the civil forfeiture policy, Sessions isn’t just wrong; the senator also seems to have no idea what he’s talking about.

And given the position to which he’ll be nominated, that’s not encouraging. Under President Obama, civil asset forfeiture has already been scaled back, but the next Attorney General can undo what’s been done and block any additional progress on the issue.

Given Sessions’ stated positions, that’s exactly what’s likely to happen in the Trump administration.

One of the interesting things about criminal-justice issues like these is the degree to which they cut across traditional political lines. The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, for example, is one of the most reliably Republican pieces of media real estate in national American journalism, while George Will is one of the nation’s highest-profile conservative pundits. And yet, both have concerns about civil forfeiture, as do many progressive Democrats. It’s one of those rare issues that falls at the bipartisan intersection of concerns over civil liberties and “big government.”

Sessions, however, has an antiquated, regressive perspective, which he was only too pleased to share publicly as recently as last year. Count on this being a key line of questioning during his confirmation hearings.


Jeff Sessions and Justice Department

Jeff Sessions to face tough questions over civil asset forfeiture

Updated