One of Jeff Sessions acts in his first year as attorney general was to rescind policy that restrained law enforcement from excessively seizing assets in a legal act referred to as civil forfeiture. Law enforcement can take cars, money and all sorts of property from any individual that they suspect has violated a federal law, such as marijuana possession, without even a conviction.
The last estimate given by the federal government concerning the monetary value of seized assets due to a marijuana crime goes back to 2013, where an estimated $18 million of assets were seized. That pales in comparison to the overall amounts seized from civil forfeiture, but then again there is no specific data concerning marijuana related crime since 2013. Since more than half the country has legalized marijuana and polls show that more than half the people in the country support the legalization of cannabis, Jeff Sessions does not have many tools left to crack down on marijuana. Civil forfeiture may be one of his strongest tools to deter people from participating in the legal marijuana trade.
“The goal here is to empower our police and prosecutors with this important tool that can be used to combat crime, particularly drug abuse,” Rosenstein said at a news briefing. “This is going to enable us to work with local police and our prosecutors to make sure that when assets are lawfully seized that they’re not returned to criminals when there’s a valid basis for them to be forfeited.”
Two years ago, then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. barred state and local police from using federal law to seize cash and other property without criminal charges or warrants. Since 2008, thousands of police agencies had made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under a Justice Department civil asset forfeiture program, which allowed local and state police to make seizures and then share the proceeds with federal agencies.
The new policy from Attorney General Jeff Sessions authorizes federal “adoption” of assets seized by state and local police when the conduct that led to the seizures violates federal law. Rosenstein said that the department is adding safeguards to ensure that police have sufficient evidence of criminal activity when property is seized. Property owners will receive notice of their rights within 45 days, which is twice as quickly as required by current law. Law enforcement agencies will be required to provide officers with more training on asset forfeiture laws, he said.
Rescinding the Cole Memo, which allowed U.S. attorneys to decide if they wanted to prosecute state legal marijuana businesses, caused more chaos in the marijuana industry than anything else and created doubt for investors. In all reality, seizing people’s assets could have a much more significant impact on their decision to continue in the business of state legal marijuana than anything other being outright arrested. Many states have created, or are working on creating legislation to reform civil forfeiture laws in their state and discourage local law enforcement form helping federal authorities in acts of civil forfeiture, like Michigan and Tennessee. It is yet another example of states moving further away from federal policy on laws deemed unreasonable. Can you imagine how much in assets federal authorities have seized from low level marijuana offenses since last summer?