WASHINGTON ― During a meeting with sheriffs on Tuesday, President Donald Trump got a misleading lesson on the controversial practice of asset forfeiture. Almost immediately, Trump encouraged the sheriffs to use it more aggressively.
Asset forfeiture is a hugely lucrative weapon in the law enforcement arsenal, allowing cops to seize property from both criminals and suspected criminals and direct those proceeds into their department coffers. Although police officials often claim they’re just “taking money from drug dealers,” that’s a drastic over-simplification.
In fact, using civil asset forfeiture, the government can seize cash and property from people who have never been charged with crimes, and then force them to engage in legal battles to prove their innocence and recover their assets.
Critics across the political spectrum have come out against civil forfeiture in recent years. They say it infringes on people’s due process and property rights and gives law enforcement monetary incentive to engage in bad practices.
But none of those critics appeared to be at the table with Trump, acting Attorney General Dana Boente and a group of sheriffs who are largely supportive of Trump.
The president’s full comments on asset forfeiture are worth examining.
Sheriff John Aubrey of Jefferson County, Kentucky, broached the issue with the president. Here’s their exchange, according to a White House release:
SHERIFF AUBREY: And the other thing is asset forfeiture. People want to say we’re taking money and without due process. That’s not true. We take money from dope dealers ―
THE PRESIDENT: So you’re saying ― okay, so you’re saying the asset-taking you used to do, and it had an impact, right? And you’re not allowed to do it now?
SHERIFF AUBREY: No, they have curtailed it a little bit. And I’m sure the folks are ―
THE PRESIDENT: And that’s for legal reasons? Or just political reasons?
SHERIFF AUBREY: They make it political and they make it ― they make up stories. All you’ve got to do ―
THE PRESIDENT: I’d like to look into that, okay? There’s no reason for that. Dana, do you think there’s any reason for that? Are you aware of this?
MR. BOENTE: I am aware of that, Mr. President. And we have gotten a great deal of criticism for the asset forfeiture, which, as the sheriff said, frequently was taking narcotics proceeds and other proceeds of crime. But there has been a lot of pressure on the department to curtail some of that.
THE PRESIDENT: So what do you do? So in other words, they have a huge stash of drugs. So in the old days, you take it. Now we’re criticized if we take it. So who gets it? What happens to it? Tell them to keep it?
MR. BOENTE: Well, we have what is called equitable sharing, where we usually share it with the local police departments for whatever portion that they worked on the case. And it was a very successful program, very popular with the law enforcement community.
THE PRESIDENT: And now what happens?
MR. BOENTE: Well, now we’ve just been given ― there’s been a lot of pressure not to forfeit, in some cases.
THE PRESIDENT: Who would want that pressure, other than, like, bad people, right? But who would want that pressure? You would think they’d want this stuff taken away.
SHERIFF AUBREY: You have to be careful how you speak, I guess. But a lot of pressure is coming out of ― was coming out of Congress. I don’t know that that will continue now or not.
THE PRESIDENT: I think less so. I think Congress is going to get beat up really badly by the voters because they’ve let this happen. And I think badly. I think you’ll be back in shape. So, asset forfeiture, we’re going to go back on, okay?
SHERIFF AUBREY: Thank you, sir.
THE PRESIDENT: I mean, how simple can anything be? You all agree with that, I assume, right?
PARTICIPANT: Absolutely, yeah.
THE PRESIDENT: Do you even understand the other side of it?
THE PRESIDENT: It’s like some things ―
PARTICIPANT: No sense.
THE PRESIDENT: Sort of like the Iran deal. Nobody even understands how a thing like that could have happened. It does nothing.
PARTICIPANT: You shouldn’t be allowed to profit from the illegal proceeds, right? So if you’re going to sell narcotics and sell illegal drugs in our country, you also cannot profit from that. And so we seize those profits.
THE PRESIDENT: So do we need any legislation or any executive orders for that, would you say, Dana ― to put that back in business?
MR. BOENTE: I don’t think we need any executive orders. We just need kind of some encouragement to move in that direction.
THE PRESIDENT: Okay. Good. You’re encouraged. (Laughter.) I love that answer, because it’s better than signing executive orders and then these people take it and they make it look so terrible ― “oh, it’s so terrible.” I love it. You’re encouraged, okay?
PARTICIPANT: Thank you.
THE PRESIDENT: Good. Asset forfeiture. You’re encouraged. Okay.
It’s clear that Trump hasn’t thought much, if at all, about this issue. It’s also clear that a large group of law enforcement officers chose not to explain to him what the criticisms are.
But the view that there are no real concerns associated with giving police broad leeway to seize and forfeit people’s property is not uncommon in the law enforcement community. Police organizations have been some of the most aggressive opponents of growing state efforts to rein in civil forfeiture and ensure that cops are only taking assets from actual criminals.
Well-publicized incidents of civil forfeiture abuse have fueled this debate. Last year, for example, sheriff’s deputies in Muskogee County, Oklahoma, seized more than $50,000 from a driver under suspicion that it was “drug money.” They had no evidence the money’s owner was involved in the drug trade, however, and it turned out that he managed a Christian rock band from Burma. Deputies returned the money months later, following news reports that it came from ticket sales and donations earmarked for an orphanage in Thailand.
In 2014, a Pottawattamie County, Iowa, sheriff’s deputy pulled over a 20-year-old motorist and seized his entire life savings, a total of $19,000, claiming it was connected to a crime. It took more than a year for a court to determine that police had erred in taking the cash and to order its return.
Not all problematic instances of civil forfeiture involve large seizures of cash. A 2015 American Civil Liberties Union report found that Philadelphia cops had made a habit of taking small amounts of money from civilians. Over a two-year period, 60 percent of the department’s cash seizures involved amounts of less than $250.
While none of the sheriffs meeting with Trump apparently “understand the other side” of the asset forfeiture story, such ignorance puts them at odds with much of the public and many elected officials. Although Americans are not widely familiar with the process of civil forfeiture, a poll conducted last year found that 84 percent think police should be able to take people’s money or property only after convicting them of a crime.
“Legislators who are trying to limit civil forfeiture should be praised instead of condemned,” said Matt Miller, managing attorney of the Texas office of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm that argues that all forfeiture should be tied to criminal convictions. “Forfeiture encourages police to go after money; it doesn’t encourage them to go after criminals. That’s why you have everyone from tea party Republicans to Democrats introducing bills to limit civil forfeiture.”
Miller added, “We would hope that if the president knew how much civil forfeiture gets abused across the country, he wouldn’t have made those remarks.”
Boente will likely soon be replaced in the attorney general’s office by Jeff Sessions, who has also been supportive of asset forfeiture.