Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, nicknamed “Buddy” as a kid growing up in Hybart, Alabama, got his law degree from the University of Alabama in 1973. He practiced law in the mid-1970s before being appointed Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan. He was elected attorney general for the state of Alabama in 1994 before winning a U.S. Senate seat in 1996. He became President Trump’s U.S. Attorney General early last year.
Throughout his legal and legislative careers, Sessions has worked diligently to carve out a reputation as a “warrior” against drugs—especially marijuana because of his unfounded belief that the drug leads to the use of harder drugs thereby fueling the nation’s “drug epidemic.”
Texas Border Declared War Zone
Since becoming attorney general, Sessions has declared the Texas border with Mexico a “war zone” against international drug gangs and has continuously preached to anyone who will listen that legalized marijuana is corrupting the moral fiber of the nation.
Though beloved by his fellow congressional colleagues, Attorney General Sessions has never been known as a bright or effective attorney. This was evidenced last July when the attorney general announced that he was rolling back an Obama directive that restricted the use of asset forfeiture by state and local police. The practice is more commonly known as “policing for profit”—a practice that allows the police to seize cash or money from citizens without a criminal charge, conviction, or even the slightest evidence of involvement in criminal activity.
The federal government and all 50 states, according to the Institute for Justice, have civil asset forfeiture laws. These laws in 43 states allow the police and prosecutors to keep anywhere from half to all the assets seized through civil forfeiture. It has often been rumored that the Texas Department of Public Safety allows the flow of drugs into the state so it can seize the drug profits leaving the state for Mexico.
Civil Asset Forfeiture is Incentive for Policing for Profit
Whether that rumor is accurate is uncertain, but one thing is certain: civil asset forfeiture is a huge incentive for policing for profit. This is evidenced by a program maintained by the federal government called “equitable sharing” that allows state and local law enforcement to bypass state laws restricting forfeiture when they collaborate with a federal law enforcement agency.
Under the “Equitable Sharing Program,” local and state police have the option of prosecuting some asset forfeiture cases under federal law, which in many cases is more lenient than that of the state. Under the program, state and local agencies keep 80% of the asset they seize.
Sessions told the National District Attorneys Associate last July that the U.S. Justice Department planned to increase forfeitures, telling the applauding prosecutors that “no criminal should be allowed to keep the proceeds of their illegal activity.”
Sessions has a particular distaste for a 2015 order issued by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that prohibited the federal government from engaging in “equitable sharing” seizures with state/local governments. Particularly impacted by Holder’s directive was the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) which saw its asset forfeitures decrease from $8.6 billion in 2014 to $6.1 billion in 2015 and a paltry $4.6 billion in 2016.
AG Beauregard Sessions to Increase Government Forfeiture of Property
Sessions countered the 2015 directive with his own 2017 directive, saying that “adopted forfeitures (equitable sharing) are appropriate. Sharing of assets with our state and local law enforcement colleagues is appropriate. We want forfeitures to increase, the sharing to increase.”
Conservative Justice Thomas Declares Forfeiture System Abusive
Sessions’ July 2017 plan to increase civil asset forfeiture flew in the face of two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that greatly curtailed the government’s use for forfeiture laws. The first was a March 2017 ruling in Leonard v. Texas in which conservative Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a singular blistering opinion:
“This [forfeiture] system – where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use – has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses. According to one nationally publicized report, for example, police in the town of Tenaha, Texas, regularly seized the property of out-of-town drivers passing through and collaborated with the district attorney to coerce them into signing waivers of their property rights.
“In one case, local officials threatened to file unsubstantiated felony charges against a Latino driver and his girlfriend and to place their children in foster care unless they signed a waiver. In another, they seized a black plant worker’s car and all his property (including cash he planned to use for dental work), jailed him for a night, forced him to sign away his property, and then released him on the side of the road without a phone or money. He was forced to walk to a Wal-Mart, where he borrowed a stranger’s phone to call his mother, who had to rent a car to pick him up.
“These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings. Perversely, these same groups are often the most burdened by forfeiture. They are more likely to use cash than alternative forms of payment, like credit cards, which may be less susceptible to forfeiture. And they are more likely to suffer in their daily lives while they litigate for the return of a critical item of property, such as a car or a home.”
In June 2017, the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision, Honeycutt v. United States, in which the court held that federal criminal asset forfeiture statutes are “limited to property the defendant himself actually acquired as the result of the crime.” The court effectively set aside the “joint and several liability” in forfeiture proceedings for members of a criminal conspiracy unless it can be shown that an individual conspirator “acquired” or “personally” benefitted from the forfeitable property.
Aggressive Forfeiture Programs Unconstitutional
As he has throughout most of his legal and political career, Attorney General Sessions chose to ignore the nation’s highest court’s concern about civil asset forfeiture. He pushed forward with his plan to reinstate the Equitable Sharing Program; that is, until arch-conservative Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah, made it clear he had serious concerns about the attorney general’s intent to reinstate the Justice Department’s “aggressive” asset forfeiture program.
Senator Lee’s concern was followed up by a stern warning from Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) who said that Sessions’ proposed plan “is an unconstitutional practice that is used to violate the due process rights of innocent people.”
Sen. Lee and Rep. Amash had obviously been listening to the warnings from the Supreme Court and a host of states that have decided to reign in the “policing for profit” programs with badly needed reforms. The two lawmakers joined in a bipartisan effort to put the police back in their original purpose, “to protect and serve,” by attaching three amendments to an appropriations bill that would prohibit the attorney general from reinstating the Equitable Sharing Program.
Proposed Legislation Designed to Add Due Process to Forfeiture
Currently there are two pieces of legislation pending before Congress—the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act (FAIR) and the DUE PROCESS Act—designed to provide significant procedural protections in civil asset forfeiture proceedings. Lawmakers are obviously fed up and disgusted with abuses in the policing for profit programs like the Berkeley cop who seized $60 from a hot dog vendor and the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security spending $100,000 in forfeiture funds on catering and banquet tickets.
Threat of Forfeiture Worries Cannabis Industry
The newly legalized cannabis industry in California is worried that the unhinged marijuana-hating Sessions will target their legal assets through federal civil asset forfeiture. Marijuana is still a Schedule I substance under federal law, and it has become clear that the attorney general believes that pot is worse than the Schedule II drugs, methamphetamine and cocaine. The nation’s chief law enforcement officer is working hard to figure out a way to circumvent the intent of congress and the warnings of the courts by going after the legal cannabis industry.
Frankly, we are concerned that Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions will acquiesce to President Trump’s desired objective to turn the U.S. Justice Department into his personal gestapo agency that will target and prosecute all his real and imaginary enemies. The paranoid president can then pursue the “Clinton Conspiracy” and the wacky attorney general can attack the legal cannabis industry.