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(No) crime and punishment

(City Journal) — On July 19, Attorney General Jeff Sessions authorized a significant policy shift at the Department of Justice that will lead to an expansion of civil-asset forfeiture—a controversial practice through which law-enforcement agents can take property they believe is related to or connected with criminal activity. What makes the practice controversial is that agents can seize property without ever having to prove that it was used in the commission of a crime, that it was purchased with the proceeds of a crime, or even show that a crime was actually committed.

Individuals and groups across the political spectrum have voiced opposition to the practice. Civil-asset forfeiture has been criticized by the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, the left-wing Center for American Progress, and the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. One of the drivers behind this broad opposition is growing evidence that the practice is used primarily not as a crime-fighting tool, but rather as a way to pad the budgets of law-enforcement agencies—something the Institute for Justice has documented in its recent report entitled Policing for Profit. As James Copland and I pointed out in an op-ed for Fox News earlier this year, federal agencies don’t even collect data to measure “how often seizures and forfeitures advance or relate to criminal investigations.” An Office of the Inspector General report in March evaluated a sample of 100 forfeitures initiated by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Of those, the DEA could verify only 44 as having “advanced or having been related to criminal investigations.”