DOJ: Civil Asset Forfeiture Is A Good Thing That Only Harms All Those Criminals We Never Arrest

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has taken a brief vacation from his "Responsible Encryption World Tour" to defend the merits of something equally questionable: civil asset forfeiture. [h/t Meaghan Ybos]

As is the case with any article defending the practice of taking "guilty" stuff from people without even bothering to determine whether the people were actually guilty of anything, Rosenstein's WSJ editorial glosses over the thousands of abuses to home in on a high profile case: the prosecution of Bernie Madoff.

Thanks to civil asset forfeiture, the Department of Justice is announcing today the record-setting distribution of restitution to victims of Bernard Madoff’s notorious investment fraud scheme. We have recovered $3.9 billion from third parties—not Mr. Madoff—and are now returning that money to more than 35,000 victims. This is the largest restoration of forfeited property in history. Civil forfeiture has allowed the government to seize those illicit proceeds and return them to Mr. Madoff’s victims.

To be clear, assets taken from Madoff were seized via criminal asset forfeiture, which requires a conviction. Rosenstein's decision to open with this glosses over this difference, allowing the reader to think civil/criminal asset forfeiture are barely distinct entities. His op-ed doesn't actually say how much of that $3.9 billion came from civil asset forfeiture -- a process that has nothing to do with a criminal prosecution like Madoff's.

From there, Rosenstein says the expected stuff: civil asset forfeiture is just a way of crippling criminal enterprises, despite it being predicated on one-sided accusations about the allegedly illegitimate origin of seized property and tied to a judicial process that discourages citizens from attempting to reclaim their possessions.

The opening paragraph also makes it appear as though civil asset forfeiture is often used to return unlawfully obtained assets to victims of crime. Nothing could be further from the truth. While this occasionally happens in criminal forfeiture cases, the lack of criminal charges in civil forfeiture cases makes it extremely unlikely there will be any "victims" to "return" seized assets to.

In most cases, the agency performing the seizure is allowed to directly benefit from it. Whether it's used to pay for new equipment or offset investigatory expenses, seized property rarely ends up back in the hands of victims.

But you won't be hearing any of that in Rosenstein's pro-forfeiture pep talk. Instead, he presents civil forfeiture as a skillfully-wielded scalpel, rather than the property-grabbing cudgel it actually is.

Some critics claim that civil asset forfeiture fails to protect property rights or provide due process. The truth is that there are multiple levels of judicial protection, as well as administrative safeguards.

First, money or property cannot be seized without a lawful reason. The evidence must be sufficient to establish probable cause to believe a crime was committed. That is the same standard needed to justify an arrest.

Second, if anyone claims ownership of the property, it may be forfeited only if the government presents enough evidence in court to establish by a preponderance of the evidence it was the proceeds of crime, or was used to commit a crime.

Courts apply the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard only in criminal cases. That high threshold of proof is appropriate when the stakes involve a person’s criminal record and potential imprisonment. But all other lawsuits, no matter how much money is at issue, use the normal civil standard. There is no logical reason to demand the elevated criminal standard in a lawsuit about illicit proceeds.

First, the money can be seized for any reason, with justification supplied after the fact. Stating law enforcement needs "probable cause" to seize property is simply untrue. Rosenstein knows this because he points out the standard of evidence needed to secure the forfeiture is actually lower than the standard needed to secure a warrant: "preponderance of evidence." If probable cause were actually needed, drivers and travelers wouldn't have to worry nearly as much about having their cash seized by highway patrol officers during traffic stops or by DEA agents while passing through airport security. Pretextual stops and scanning passenger manifests for one-way ticket purchases are no one's idea of "probable cause."

Furthermore, if the standard of evidence needed prior to seizure was actually the same as the requirement to secure an arrest warrant, more seizure victims would be arrested. But they're not. They're usually free to go, minus whatever law enforcement officers have taken from them.

As for the last part, Rosenstein is right: we shouldn't need to change the standard of evidence in civil cases. But that's not where the change is needed. If property is being taken from criminals -- as Rosenstein and other forfeiture supporters claim -- then all seizures should be of the criminal variety: a conviction should be required. This leaves civil lawsuit evidence requirements unchanged… just the way Rosenstein prefers it.

Then there's this, which Rosenstein offers up as some sort of proof that the government is in the right at least 80% of the time when it takes property from citizens without charging them with crimes:

About 80% of the time, nobody even tries to claim the seized assets.

Well, let's look at this. Rosenstein talks billions in his Madoff anecdote, but the reality of civil asset forfeiture is a majority of seizures fall well under the $1,000 mark. Considering the long, uphill battle facing forfeiture victims, anything short of several thousands dollars usually isn't worth the effort. In those cases, the expenses of challenging the forfeiture would outweigh the the value of the property recovered. This is a stupid stat that proves nothing.

The years of documentation of widespread forfeiture abuse by law enforcement agencies? It's reduced to this by the Deputy Attorney General:

To be sure, law-enforcement officers sometimes make mistakes.

Come on, Rod. This is just embarrassing. You want the private sector to trust you and get on board with DOJ encryption key escrow, etc.? Maybe stop lying to the public. Maybe discontinue this gross minimization of repeated, abusive law enforcement behavior. Maybe do something more to curb forfeiture abuse. Hell, try doing anything at all. The only thing the DOJ has done in recent months is open back up the federal forfeiture adoption program -- something that has been abused for years by law enforcement agencies looking to route around restrictive state laws.

It's unsurprising the DOJ would argue publicly that civil asset forfeiture is A-OK and good for America. It's just unsettling that the arguments are this bad.

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