Clarence Thomas vs. Jeff Sessions on Civil Asset Forfeiture

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced this week that the Justice Department will increase the use of civil asset forfeiture, the practice that allows law enforcement officials to seize property from persons who have been neither charged with nor convicted of any crime. "Civil asset forfeiture is a key tool," Sessions declared. "President Trump has directed this Department of Justice to reduce crime in this country, and we will use every lawful tool that we have to do that."

But civil asset forfeiture is not a "lawful tool." It is an unconstitutional abuse of government power. The Fifth Amendment forbids the government from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Civil asset forfeiture turns that venerable principle on its head, allowing government agents to take what they want without the bother of bringing charges, presenting clear and convincing evidence, and obtaining a conviction in a court of law. It is the antithesis of due process.

By ordering the expansion of this unconstitutional practice, Sessions has placed himself on a collision course with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. As Thomas recently explained in a statement respecting the denial of certiorari in the case of Leonard v. Texas, not only has civil asset forfeiture "led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses" by law enforcement agencies around the country, but the practice is fundamentally incompatible with the Constitution.

Thomas did not mince words. The legal justifications offered in defense of civil asset forfeiture, he pointed out, cannot be squared with the text of the Constitution, which "presumably would require the [Supreme Court] to align its distinct doctrine governing civil forfeiture with its doctrines governing other forms of punitive state action and property deprivation." Those other doctrines, Thomas noted, impose significant checks on the government, such as heightened standards of proof, numerous procedural safeguards, and the right to a trial by jury. By contrast, civil asset forfeiture proceedings provide no such constitutional protections. Thomas left little doubt that when the proper case came before him, he would rule civil asset forfeiture unconstitutional.

Attorney General Sessions should take Justice Thomas' words to heart.