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Civil Asset Forfeiture Skyrocketed Under Obama

Liberals upset by Jeff Session’s support of the civil asset forfeiture program should have spoken up when Eric Holder massively expanded it.


When CBS news announced that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had reinstated rules allowing seizure of assets by the federal government, the broadcast news network painted it as a serious departure from the Obama era:

A change would likely represent another reversal by Sessions of Obama-era Justice Department policies. His Democratic predecessor Eric Holder had tightened control of the department’s asset forfeiture operations amid concerns that property could be seized without judicial oversight and without the owner ever being charged with a crime.

Almost nothing in this paragraph is accurate.

Eric Holder was Attorney General from 2009 to early 2015. During that time, the total annual dollar value of assets seized by federal law enforcement went from less than $2 billion to more than $5 billion, exceeding criminal burglary losses in 2014.

Just two months before the end of his six-year tenure and attendant support of the program, Holder received accolades for supposedly ending the program. Some civil libertarians warned that he hadn’t actually ended the program. They were right.

One of the few journalists to follow the program and report on its abuses is Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post. He reported in March of last year, “The feds have resumed a controversial program that lets cops take stuff and keep it.” That story, from which the above graph is taken, noted:

Reformers had hoped that the suspension of the program in December was a signal that the Justice Department was looking for ways to rein in the practice. But that no longer appears to be the case.

“This really was about funding, not a genuine concern about the abuses rampant in the equitable sharing system,” said Scott Bullock, president of the Institute for Justice (IJ), in an interview. IJ is a civil liberties law firm that researches asset forfeiture and advocates on behalf of forfeiture defendants. It has reported extensively on what it calls the “profit motive” created by the Equitable Sharing Program: Because police get to keep a share of the items they seize, they have an incentive to take more stuff.

Bullock said the suspension and return of equitable sharing demonstrate the need for Congress to act on the issue. “Changes to forfeiture policy can be swept away by the stroke of a pen,” he said.

Sessions’s order opening up the gates received well-deserved condemnation from libertarians and conservatives yesterday (see here, here, here, for example). Libertarians and conservatives are long-time critics of the program that allows governments to seize property without even feinting toward due process. However, the issue never generated much anger among liberals during the Obama administration. The American Civil Liberties Union technically joined with the libertarian Koch Foundation to oppose the program and liberal John Oliver did a segment on it in 2014.

A Nexis search for “civil asset forfeiture” and “Eric Holder” of all English language news from the date of Eric Holder’s nomination as attorney general through the end of 2014, just before the program was supposedly altered, found only 45 mentions, almost all of them reprints of state or federal Justice Department press releases. A couple of libertarian and conservative publications, including The Federalist, ran multiple articles critiquing the practice and its proponents, and Republican Jim Sensenbrenner’s criticism of the program drew minor coverage. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page expressed concern and the San Francisco Chronicle did as well.

More general and less political coverage of “civil asset forfeiture”– that is, coverage that didn’t mention the top Democratic dog responsible for the program — was more common — 1,054 articles. Compare that to 1,119 articles in the last six months alone.

Liberals did condemn Sessions yesterday, though their voice would have been more valuable during the Obama era when civil asset forfeiture skyrocketed.

The group that most consistently opposes the unconstitutional civil asset forfeiture programs — whether they’re tolerated and encouraged by Democratic attorneys general or Republican — is the Institute for Justice. Its “Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture” report is available here. The Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General report on the Drug Enforcement Agency’s decade-long abuses of the program, most of which occurred during the Obama administration, received little coverage upon its release in March. It is available here.