"The goal here is to empower our police and prosecutors with this important tool that can be used to combat crime, particularly drug abuse," Rosenstein said at a news briefing. "This is going to enable us to work with local police and our prosecutors to make sure that when assets are lawfully seized that they're not returned to criminals when there's a valid basis for them to be forfeited."
Two years ago, then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. barred state and local police from using federal law to seize cash and other property without criminal charges or warrants. Since 2008, thousands of police agencies had made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under a Justice Department civil asset forfeiture program, which allowed local and state police to make seizures and then share the proceeds with federal agencies.
A Washington Post investigation in 2014 found that state and local police had seized almost $2.5 billion from motorists and others without search warrants or indictments since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The Post series revealed that police routinely stopped drivers for minor traffic infractions, pressed them to agree to searches without warrants and seized large amounts of cash when there was no evidence of wrongdoing.
Police then spent the proceeds from the seizure with little oversight, according to the Post investigation. In some cases, the police bought luxury cars, high-powered weapons and armored cars.
"You're never going to eliminate allegations of abuses," Rosenstein said, "never going to eliminate mistakes 100 percent. But I think this new policy is going to position us very well to make sure there are very few credible allegations of abuse, and where there are we're going to make it a priority to follow up."
The new policy from Attorney General Jeff Sessions authorizes federal "adoption" of assets seized by state and local police when the conduct that led to the seizures violates federal law. Rosenstein said that the department is adding safeguards to ensure that police have sufficient evidence of criminal activity when property is seized. Property owners will receive notice of their rights within 45 days, which is twice as quickly as required by current law. Law enforcement agencies will be required to provide officers with more training on asset forfeiture laws, he said.
State and local law enforcement officials supported the change, but Democratic and Republican lawmakers were skeptical.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) called Sessions's policy "troubling" and said it would "expand a loophole that's become a central point of contention nationwide."
"Criminals shouldn't be able to keep the proceeds of their crime, but innocent Americans shouldn't lose their right to due process, or their private property rights, in order to make that happen," Issa said in a statement.
Holder tweeted that Sessions's policy was "another extremist action" and said the Obama administration policy was "a reform that was supported by conservatives and progressives, Republicans and Democrats."
Kanya Bennett, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, called the action "outrageous."
"We are talking about people who have not been convicted of a crime and are often not given a day in court to reclaim their possessions," Bennett said. "Civil asset forfeiture is tantamount to policing for profit, generating millions of dollars annually that the agencies get to keep."
At a meeting with county sheriffs on Feb. 7, President Trump made clear to law enforcement officials that he is a strong supporter of the civil asset forfeiture program and told the Justice Department to rescind the Obama administration restrictions.
On Wednesday, Sessions defended the reversal at a meeting with representatives from the Fraternal Order of Police, the National Sheriffs' Association, the Major Cities Chiefs Association and other law enforcement officials who back the new policy.
"Civil asset forfeiture is a key tool that helps law enforcement defund organized crime, take back ill-gotten gains and prevent new crimes from being committed, and it weakens the criminals and the cartels," Sessions said.
Earlier this week, Sessions told the National District Attorneys Association that "no criminal should be allowed to keep the proceeds of their crime."
But the ACLU's Bennett said, "The problem is that we are not talking about criminals."
"We are talking about Americans who have had their homes, cars, money and other property taken through civil forfeiture, which requires only mere suspicion that the property is connected to a crime," she said.