According to Senator Charles Grassley, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the U.S. Marshals Service “wasted and misused” cash and other assets seized from criminal suspects. Grassley’s revelations follow a House vote on Tuesday that tacks a series of amendments onto a Justice Department spending package that will scale back implementation of the newly reinstated program.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions pulled the revenue generating “civil asset forfeiture program” out of moth balls only a few weeks ago, setting it in action to crank out additional funding for law enforcement. “Asset forfeiture is one of law enforcement’s most effective tools to reduce crime and its use should be encouraged where appropriate,” Sessions proclaimed.
Under civil asset forfeiture laws, police and other enforcement agencies are allowed to confiscate cash and “other assets” from airport travelers or motorists when they have “probable cause” to suspect the asset is “connected to a crime.” You don’t even have to be convicted. Suspicion alone can justify the seizure.
In a process called “adoption,” money taken by local police is passed up to the Justice Department to be used “to pay for expenses for seizures and investigations. Proceeds are also shared with law enforcement agencies that contribute to the fund.” Critics say this is a way to circumvent laws in individual states that try to take a more proactive approach to enforcing the fourth amendment.
“This is a troubling decision for the due process protections afforded to us under the Fourth Amendment as well as the growing consensus we’ve seen nationwide on this issue,” Republican Rep. Darrell Issa wrote in a July statement. “Ramping up adoptive forfeitures would circumvent much of the progress state legislatures have made to curb forfeiture abuse. Criminals shouldn’t be able to keep the proceeds of their crime but innocent Americans shouldn’t lose their right to due process, or their private property rights, in order to make that happen.” Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) agrees. “This practice is outrageous. It supplants the authority of states to regulate their own law enforcement and it further mires the federal government in unconstitutional asset forfeitures.”
The Attorney General was also concerned that the program would be used legally and properly. “To ensure that this tool is used appropriately, the Department is implementing safeguards to make certain that there is sufficient evidence of criminal activity before a federal adoption occurs, that the evidence is well documented, that our state and local law enforcement partners have appropriate training to use this tool, and that there is appropriate supervisory review of decisions to approve forfeiture,” Sessions added. Deborah Connor, acting chief of the DOJ’s Criminal Division, called the program “an essential tool in starving gang members, drug traffickers, and terrorists of their means and tools.”
Extensive legal training would be provided to local law enforcement, according to DOJ, They also assure that state and local agencies “will have to provide more proof than ever before that seizures are justified.” The spokesman for the Justice Department also pointed out “that the bulk of seizures are of guns, ammunition, and cash and most are not challenged in court.”
Despite all the controls and safeguards in place on the seizure side, not much is being done to keep an eye on the spending side. In a memo Grassley wrote to Sessions, he describes how the law enforcement unit of the federal judicial system improperly handled and spent forfeiture fund money. “Evidence shows that the USMS wasted and misused money it received … The agency also provided incomplete and in some cases misleading details about some of these expenditures,” the Senator scolded.
“There are laws governing the use of this money for a reason. Money set aside to fight crime and support victims should not be treated as a slush fund for extravagances, and it should not be misused to thwart clear spending rules set by Congress,” Grassley writes on his website. “In our constitutional system of checks and balances, Congress has the power of the purse. Playing games with unappropriated funds to avoid accountability is outrageous and cannot be tolerated.”
The Judiciary Committee chairman details past abuses of the Assets Forfeiture Fund (AFF) by the Marshals Service, which manages seized assets. He discovered that they equipped one facility in Texas with “luxury furnishings like high-end granite counter tops and expensive custom artwork.” Grassley notes the building is only used 52 days a year at most. Funds were used to pay for “salaries, vacation time and benefits of employees out of the AFF for work unrelated to asset forfeiture and in such a way that it apparently produced a “net gain” of $1.3 million to the USMS.”
Whistleblowers also told investigators from Grassley’s office that in 2015, a headquarters relocation plan called for personal bathrooms for everyone in senior leadership and unnecessary furniture. When Grassley looked into it he was told that old furniture was reused instead. Whistleblowers say that isn’t true, it was thrown out and replaced. Televisions were installed in offices of employees not even allowed to use them.