The Other Side of Legalized Theft

During a meeting with county sheriffs in February, Donald Trump was puzzled by criticism of civil asset forfeiture, which all the cops in the room viewed as an indispensable and unobjectionable law enforcement tool. "Do you even understand the other side of it?" the president asked. "No," one sheriff said, and that was that.

Trump might get a more helpful answer if he asked Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who last week reintroduced a bill aimed at curtailing civil forfeiture abuses. As Sensenbrenner observed, "These abuses threaten citizens' Constitutional rights, put unnecessary burdens on innocent Americans, and weaken our faith in law enforcement."

Civil forfeiture lets the government confiscate property allegedly linked to crime without bringing charges against the owner. Since law enforcement agencies receive most or all of the proceeds from the forfeitures they initiate, they have a strong financial incentive to loot first and ask questions never, which explains why those sheriffs were not eager to enlighten the president about the downside of such legalized theft.

A new report from the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) highlights the potential for abuse. Between fiscal years 2007 and 2016, the OIG found, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) took $4.2 billion in cash, more than 80 percent of it through administrative forfeitures, meaning there was no judicial oversight because the owners did not challenge the seizures in court.