Justice Dept. Revives Criticized Policy Allowing Assets to Be Seized

The Justice Department also added new safeguards: requiring local authorities to provide additional detail justifying the probable cause for seizure; mandating new training of state and local law enforcement; and stipulating that federal prosecutors approve certain seizures, including those of cash under $10,000, to curb fraud and abuse.

Law enforcement groups gathered at the Justice Department with Mr. Sessions for the announcement on Wednesday were enthusiastic about what some saw as a chance to supplement thin budgets.

“D.O.J. all but stopped working with local police in this process, and this is a critical tool that we all need,” J. Thomas Manger, president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the chief of police in Maryland’s Montgomery County, told Mr. Sessions. “I’m really encouraged by the fact that you saw the public’s concern with this program and you strengthened the accountability measures for local police.”

Under the Obama administration, seizures of money or other assets by state and local authorities who used federal law brought in several billion dollars, but critics pointed to what they saw as an outsize impact on innocent people. In eliminating the policy in January 2015, Mr. Holder called asset forfeiture “a critical law enforcement tool when used appropriately” but said he was ending the more limited policy to protect civil liberties.

Ben Ruddell, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said Mr. Sessions was re-establishing a policy with little mainstream support.

“There’s bipartisan consensus in states all over the country that forfeiture has gone too far and needs to be constrained,” Mr. Ruddell said. “Now you have the attorney general of the United States saying, ‘We have to double down and do more of this.’ He’s completely swimming against the tide of current thinking.”

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In Illinois, legislation passed this year would require a higher level of proof for the government to seize someone’s property — not simply probable cause — and create an option for innocent parties seeking to recover their assets to have their claims expedited. That bill awaits the governor’s signature.

A host of other states have in recent years enacted restrictions on civil asset forfeiture, including California, Connecticut, Michigan, Maryland and Nebraska.

Mr. Ruddell called New Mexico’s law “the gold standard.” It requires that a person be criminally convicted before his or her property is seized and stipulates that forfeiture proceeds go to a general state revenue fund rather than directly to the law enforcement agency that seized in the assets, aiming to eliminate any profit incentive.

But with the change in federal policy, the impact of some state laws could be limited, allowing local authorities a workaround.

Mr. Rosenstein said that the policy was not intended to deliver on any promises to police or to “please a particular constituency,” and that he thought it was critical to “return this tool to the hands of local law enforcement” in the face of rising drug overdose deaths in America.

“If you look at any federal program, any program is going to be used improperly,” Mr. Rosenstein said. “When we get a credible allegation there has been some abuse, we’re going to look into it and make sure that people are held accountable.”

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