Tag: department of justice

Judge Sanctions Obama Lawyers for Ethical Violations, Wishes He Could Disbar Them

While everyone was debating Trump’s judicial-nominations list yesterday, the judge in Brownsville, Texas, who still maintains control of certain technical aspects of the immigration-executive-action case now before the Supreme Court issued an extraordinary order sanctioning the Justice Department for various misrepresentations and other ethical breaches. It turns out that the government had begun implementing DAPA and extended DACA – the program providing temporary eligibility for residence and other benefits to large classes of illegal aliens – before the February 2015 date when those programs were intended to become active.

Judge Andrew Hanen had worked to produce a 123-page opinion enjoining the executive action on the eve of that “go” date, and it turns out that the Justice Department violated its duty of candor by not revealing the extent of its malfeasance – and continuing with the program in certain ways for a few weeks after the order went into effect. That is, regardless whether the government purposely defied the judge or this was a case of the left hand not knowing what the far-left hand was doing, administration lawyers had a duty to disclose everything that was going on, and to make best efforts to stop the Department of Homeland Security from putting its new programs into effect.

Department of Justice Resurrects the Equitable Sharing Program

Well, it was fun while it lasted.

Last December, civil liberties advocates cheered the Department of Justice’s announcement that it was indefinitely suspending its equitable sharing asset forfeiture program due to fiscal constraints.  This week, unfortunately, the Department of Justice lifted the suspension and resumed payments to local police departments.

Civil asset forfeiture allows the government to seize property and cash from Americans, without charge or trial, on the mere suspicion of wrongdoing. In most jurisdictions, the seizing agency gets to keep some or even all of the proceeds, creating a clear profit motive for the agencies to seize property.  

Equitable sharing is a federal program which allows state and local law enforcement to seize property under federal, rather than state, forfeiture law. Law enforcement agencies in states with more restrictive forfeiture laws are thus able to get around those state restrictions by participating in the federal program.

The equitable sharing program also provides an 80% kickback to the seizing local agency, which is a larger share of the proceeds than many states allow. As one might expect, the more a state restricts the use and abuse of civil asset forfeiture, the more state and local police tend to rely on the federal program instead.

In short, equitable sharing creates a federal incentive for law enforcement to sidestep state law and chase profits under federal law instead.

While then-Attorney General Eric Holder imposed some small rerforms on the equitable sharing program on his way out of office, the program still rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars a year.  Given this week’s announcement, the chances that the Obama Administration will take further steps to rein in forfeiture abuse in its final year seem slim.  

Nothing, however, prevents state governments from asserting their sovereignty by restricting their law enforcement agencies from participating in the federal program.

This morning I discussed the resumption of equitable sharing with Darpana Sheth of the Institute for Justice:

 

For more on civil asset forfeiture, check out the Institute for Justice’s exhaustive survey of forfeiture laws and abuses, Policing for Profit.

Also check out Cato’s explainer on civil asset forfeiture.

Turbulence Ahead: Domestic Drone Debate Intensifies

National Journal has a new piece out today that highlights the continuing controversy over the Federal Aviation Administration’s failure thus far to publish a final rule governing the operation of drones in domestic airspace (FAA’s current unmanned aerial system (UAS) guidance can be found here). One thing the FAA will not be doing is wading into the commercial sector privacy debate over drones; it has punted that issue to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). But what about federal agencies and their use of UASs?

Federal domestic UAS use has a checkered history.

In December 2014, the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General issued a report blasting the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) drone program as waste:

  • The unmanned aircraft did not meeting the CBP Office of Air and Marine (OAM) goal of being airborne 16 hours a day, every day of the year; in FY 2013, the aircraft were airborne 22 percent of the anticipated number of hours.
  • Compared to CBP’s total number of apprehensions, OAM attributed relatively few to unmanned aircraft operations.
  • OAM could not demonstrate that the unmanned aircraft have reduced the cost of border surveillance.
  • OAM expected the unmanned aircraft would be able to respond to motion sensor alerts and thus reduce the need for USBP response, but the IG found few instances of this having occurred.

North Carolina Forfeiture Case Reveals Limits of Executive Reform, Government Defensiveness

In March, we detailed reforms announced by Attorney General Eric Holder to federal asset forfeitures under the Bank Secrecy Act’s “structuring” law.  Those changes mirror an earlier policy shift by the Internal Revenue Service.  Unfortunately for some, those changes were not made retroactive, meaning people whose property was seized before the announcements in a way that would violate the new policies did not automatically have their property returned.

Lyndon McLellan, the owner of a North Carolina convenience store, has not been charged with a crime.  He has, however, had his entire business account totaling $107,702.66, seized by the federal government.  As Mr. McLellan attempts to recover his money, he is now being represented by the Institute for Justice, which issued this release:

“This case demonstrates that the federal government’s recent reforms are riddled with loopholes and exceptions and fundamentally fail to protect Americans’ basic rights,” said Institute for Justice Attorney Robert Everett Johnson, who represents Lyndon. “No American should have his property taken by the government without first being convicted of a crime.”

In February 2015, during a hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Ways & Means Oversight Subcommittee, North Carolina Congressman George Holding told IRS Commissioner John Koskinen that he had reviewed Lyndon’s case—without specifically naming it—and that there was no allegation of the kind of illegal activity required by the IRS’s new policy. The IRS Commissioner responded, “If that case exists, then it’s not following the policy.”

The government’s response to the notoriety Mr. McLellan’s case has received was nothing short of threatening.  After the hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven West wrote to Mr. McLellan’s attorney:

Whoever made [the case file] public may serve their own interest but will not help this particular case. Your client needs to resolve this or litigate it. But publicity about it doesn’t help. It just ratchets up feelings in the agency. My offer is to return 50% of the money. 

What “feelings in the agency” could possibly be “ratchet[ed] up” by highlighting a case in which the owner is accused of no wrongdoing while both the Department of Justice and the Internal Revenue Service have announced reforms to prevent these seizures from occurring?

Perhaps the government is sensitive to the avalanche of negative press that civil asset forfeiture has received over the past several years (thanks to the tireless efforts of organizations like the Institute for Justice and the ACLU).  Perhaps the government feels that the game is nearly up, after dozens of publicized cases of civil asset forfeiture abuse.

Cases like this show that the executive branch, now under a new Attorney General who has her own controversial civil forfeiture history, cannot be trusted to stay its own hand.  State and federal legislators must take the initiative, as some already have, if this abusive practice is going to end.

Eric Holder Issues New Asset Forfeiture Restrictions for Structuring Offenses

Today Attorney General Eric Holder issued new guidelines to federal prosecutors tightening the rules for seizing assets for so-called “structuring” offenses.

Under the Bank Secrecy Act, structuring occurs when someone is suspected of arranging their financial transactions as to avoid triggering a report to the federal government by the financial institution.  Some of civil asset forfeiture’s most egregious abuses are the result of federal prosecutors utilizing this nebulous statute to empty the bank accounts of unwitting citizens and small businesses who are never charged with any crime or even aware that their transactions are considered illegal. 

The new rules require:

1. That structuring seizures against people for whom there is no criminal charge be based upon probable cause that the funds were either generated by unlawful activity or intended for use in anticipated unlawful activity.  Alternatively, prosecutors must procure a warrant from a court and with the approval of either the U.S. Attorney (for Assistant U.S. Attorneys) or the Chief of the Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section (AFMLS) (for Criminal Division trial attorneys).

2. That when the prosecutor determines subsequent to a structuring seizure that the government lacks the necessary evidence to succeed at either a civil or criminal trial, the seizing agency must return the full amount.

3. That when a prosecutor seizes property pursuant to suspicion of structuring, the prosecutor must file either a criminal indictment or a civil complaint, or receive an exception from either a U.S. Attorney or Chief of AFMLS within 150 days or else return the seized assets.

4. That all settlements must be complete and in writing.  Informal settlements are expressly prohibited.

Quiet Change Expands ATF Power to Seize Property

A quick glance at the Federal Register (Vol. 80, No. 37, p. 9987-88) today reveals that Attorney General Eric Holder, who earned cautious praise last month for a small reform to the federal equitable sharing program, has now delegated authority to the Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) to seize and “administratively forfeit” property involved in suspected drug offenses.  Holder temporarily delegated this authority to the ATF on a trial basis in 2013, and today made the delegation permanent while lauding the ATF for seizing more than $19.3 million from Americans during the trial period.

Historically, when the ATF uncovered contraband subject to forfeiture under drug statutes, it was required to either refer the property to the DEA for administrative forfeiture proceedings or to a U.S. Attorney in order to initiate a judicial forfeiture action.  Under today’s change, the ATF will now be authorized to seize property related to alleged drug offenses and initiate administrative forfeiture proceedings all on its own.

The DOJ claims this rule change doesn’t affect individual rights (and was thus exempt from the notice and comment requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act) and that the change is simply an effort to streamline the federal government’s forfeiture process.  Those who now stand more likely to have their property taken without even a criminal charge may beg to differ.

Further, the department claims that forcing the ATF to go through a judicial process in order to seize property requires too much time and money.  Whereas an “uncontested administrative forfeiture can be perfected in 60-90 days for minimal cost […] the costs associated with judicial forfeiture can amount to hundreds or thousands of dollars and the judicial process generally can take anywhere from 6 months to years.”  In other words, affording judicial process to Americans suspected of engaging in criminal activity takes too long and costs too much. 

Holder’s DOJ Wants a Veto over Parents’ Choice of School

Though the U.S. Department of Justice partially backed down on its lawsuit against Louisiana’s school choice program in November, yesterday the DOJ filed its proposal to oversee the program. The program provides school vouchers to low-income families with children otherwise assigned to failing government schools. Among many proposed regulations, the DOJ wants the state of Louisiana to give the federal government the following information about each school choice applicant: 

1. Name

2. Student ID number

3. Address

4. Grade

5. Race

6. School applicant attends in current school year, if any

7. Louisiana School Performance Score (letter grade) for school in (6), above, if applicable

8. Public school district of the school in (6), if applicable

9. District public school applicant would be assigned to attend for the upcoming school year if applicant does not receive a voucher

10. Louisiana School Performance Score (letter grade) for school in (9), above

11. Student enrollment in the school in (9), above, for the current school year, by race

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