JANUARY 21, 2017 -- BY JIM NEFF
THE NEFF ZONE
GET OFF MY LAWN!
It's a nice summer day and you've spent the afternoon mowing the grass in your yard and it's now neatly trimmed and looking good. You go to bed that night with a sense of accomplishment.
While you're asleep a couple of cretins meet in front of your house and transact a drug deal while standing (in the dark) on your front lawn. You have no idea this is going on because it's the middle of the night and you are sleeping.
You are awakened in the morning by the police pounding on your door. They have captured the two druggies and now they are here to “arrest” your lawn, seize your house, and throw you out into the street.
Far fetched, right? Not really. It's all legal (in the U.S. of A) under a procedure known as “civil asset forfeiture.” Keep your eye on this because a main advocate of this is Jeff Sessions, the Trump pick to be the next Attorney General of the United States.
If this seems like confusing concept, USA Today did a nice explanation summary: “Sessions is a fierce proponent of civil asset forfeiture, which allows the federal government to seize property under the absurd theory that the property itself was involved in crime, even if its owners have not been accused of any crime, let alone convicted of one.” (http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2017/01/15/jeff-sessions-attorney-general-martin-luther-king-editorials-debates/96613378/)
It probably does not surprise you that most Americans think this is a usurping of their rights. Forbes magazine observed: “By a very large measure, Americans oppose civil asset forfeiture. They think that it is wrong for the government to take property from someone who has not been convicted of any crime. The most recent evidence showing that is found in a recent Cato Institute survey on public attitudes toward the police and in it, 84 percent said they oppose allowing the police to seize a person’s property on mere suspicion that he may have been involved in crime. Unfortunately, it seems that Donald Trump’s choice for Attorney General, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, is among that small minority of Americans who reflexively support civil asset forfeiture.” (http://www.forbes.com/sites/georgeleef/2017/01/03/sessions-has-no-problem-with-civil-asset-forfeiture-and-thats-a-problem/2/#7fc76cd9eb89)
You see, Sessions claims: “Ninety-five percent of such forfeitures involve people who have done nothing in their lives but sell dope.” This sounds like an anti-crime stance. But the real reason for the practice may not be so cut and dried. “Nationwide, proceeds from sales of seized property (homes, cars, etc.) go to the seizers. And under a federal program, state and local law enforcement can partner with federal authorities in forfeiture and reap up to 80 percent of the proceeds. This is called 'equitable sharing.'”
In short, some government entities may see this as a money-making gambit: “This December 27thWall Street Journal editorial, argues that: 'The lack of procedural protection coupled with financial incentives has turned policing for profit into a slush fund for governments hungry for cash, and the payouts too often come at the expense of civil liberties.'”
For the totally innocent citizen, fighting this is almost impossible. “The Washington Post revealed in a blockbuster exposé on the program, law enforcement agencies seized $2.5 billion in cash from nearly 62,000 people. Incredibly, all of those cash seizures were conducted without search warrants or indictments. Most Justice Department forfeitures are done civilly (87 percent), with no right to an attorney. Of those, 88 percent were administrative, or done without any court supervision. The process is expensive, labyrinthine, and stacked against the former owners of the seized assets. Because convictions aren’t an integral part of the process, no investigations are started and no efforts made to ensure the seized assets are the direct result of criminal activity. (http://abovethelaw.com/2016/12/trumps-pick-for-attorney-general-a-big-fan-of-civil-asset-forfeiture/ and https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-very-bad-reason-jeff-sessions-is-very-unhappy/2016/12/23/213a3cb8-c86d-11e6-bf4b-2c064d32a4bf_story.html)
It gets even more bizarre. Some Republicans and conservatives initially favored the procedure under the belief it was tough on crime. Then they turned against it as government over reach and roundly criticized the Obama administration for not doing anything to change the laws. Now being against civil asset forfeiture, having Sessions as the AG would seem to be just the opposite of what they want done (to get ride of this).
Indeed, efforts to reform civil asset forfeiture have been underway. “Conservative heavy-hitters like Grover Norquist, the Heritage Foundation, Right on Crime and FreedomWorks have worked with the Institute for Justice to pass major reforms in Florida, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico and Ohio — all states that either voted for Donald Trump or are led by Republican governors.” (http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865670287/My-view-Reining-in-civil-asset-forfeiture.html)
“Nebraska’s unicameral legislature — the only one of its kind in the nation — passed the bill by a wide margin, reflecting the widespread and bipartisan recognition that forfeiture laws have strayed from their original, narrow, and laudable purpose,” wrote Jason Snead, a policy analyst in The Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.
Locally, Michigan legislators recently passed a bipartisan series of bills to protect the state's citizens from civil asset forfeiture. Holly Harris, Executive Director, U.S. Justice Action Network noted: “Today’s success, in the final hours of the legislative session shows the energy and commitment behind common sense reforms to our justice system. Civil asset forfeiture robs Americans of their due process and property rights because it allows the government to take your property when you’ve never even been charged with a crime. Thanks to this bill, Michiganders won’t have to pay to get their day in court to recover their unfairly seized property.” (http://www.fixforfeiture.org/u-s-justice-action-network-applauds-michigan-legislature-for-passing-reform-to-civil-asset-forfeiture-process/)
Now let's all hope that Jeff Sessions is not successful in undoing the progress that has been made. Every American deserves a front lawn safe from unwarranted government seizure.
Jim Neff is a local columnist. Read Neff Zone columns online at CadillacNews.com and NeffZone.com/cadillacnews.