A lot of things were bound to change under the Trump administration. And so far, many of the changes have come courtesy of the Department of Justice. This week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former Alabama senator, announced that the Justice Department will expand civil forfeiture programs, which allow law enforcement to seize people’s cash, homes, and other possessions in the name of punishment.
The procedures were created during Prohibition and regained popularity at the height of the War on Drugs in the 1980s to ensure that no criminal could keep the profits of their criminal activity, which in theory makes some logical sense. You bust a drug dealer, and seize the cash, product, and any possible possessions that came from their drug money pending prosecution as a way to send a message to people to not commit crimes. Depending on your view of crime and effective prosecution, that might seem like a prudent thing for law enforcement to do.
But in practice, it just doesn’t work. Instead, it allows police officers to seize someone’s money, car, or even their home on mere suspicion — in many cases, the person hasn’t even been charged with a crime, let alone prosecuted or convicted. And even if the person isn’t charged with a crime at all, the government keeps those assets.
According to a March report by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, from 2007 to 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration obtained $3.2 billion in cash seizures without filing any charges against the people from whom they took the money. And it’s not easy to get that money back.
Here’s the thing: A lot of times, lower-income people and people of color are the target of criminal investigations. Cash, for example, can be seized during traffic stops that result in no charges at all. And that money could be everything the person has in their checking account. It’s likely not a lot of money, either, but it means everything to the individual from whom it was seized.