Between fiscal years 2007 and 2016, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized approximately $3.2 billion in cash from people who were never charged with a criminal offense, according to a report by the Justice Department’s Inspector General, released Wednesday, March 29.
Federal asset forfeiture laws allow federal law enforcement officials to seize cash and possessions with suspected ties to criminal activity. Law enforcement can keep the assets it seizes, regardless of whether or not the property owner is ever charged or convicted of a crime.
The Justice Department says asset forfeiture is an important law enforcement tool, but the practice has been criticized by reform advocates who say it incentivizes police to seize property and cash from people who haven’t done anything wrong and violates people’s civil liberties.
The Inspector General’s report appears to affirm many concerns long voiced by critics of asset forfeiture laws.
The report concludes that the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture program operates with inadequate oversight and training of local and state law enforcement. The report also says the department doesn’t collect enough data to actually determine if assets are seized in legitimate investigations, or if the practice is carried out to prop up law enforcement budgets. Over the past 10 years, property and cash forfeitures through the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Program totalled more than $28 billion, according to the report.
The DEA was responsible for 80 percent of cash seized under the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Program between fiscal years 2007 and 2016, and of seizures resulting in forfeiture, 81 percent of those were forfeited “administratively,” meaning no criminal charges were filed in connection to those cash seizures.
“Such outcomes can raise questions about whether seizures are intended to serve legitimate law enforcement interests or to bolster law enforcement budgets,” the report said.
In a written response to the Associated Press, the Justice Department’s criminal division said the Inspector General relied on incomplete or flawed data and said the report presents misleading claims.
For its part, the Inspector General’s report makes four recommendations for the Justice Department’s use of asset forfeiture and seizure practices, including development of better data collection and analysis techniques, ensuring consistency in federal asset forfeiture and seizure operations, and providing full training to local and state law enforcement agencies.
U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, responded to the watchdog report Wednesday, underscoring a commitment to asset forfeiture reform and intentions to address the issue in the 115th Congress.
“Today’s report by the Inspector General makes it clear that asset forfeiture is in desperate need of reform,” Goodlatte said in a press release. “While asset forfeiture is a useful law enforcement tool to fight crime, the current lack of oversight and training poses dangers to Americans’ civil liberties.”