Former Heads of Forfeiture Office Call for Program’s Termination

Former Forfeiture Chiefs Say System Has Become Corrupt

John Yoder and Brad Cates, both of whom have served as director of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Asset Forfeiture Office, have called for the program to be disbanded, contending that it is rife with corruption and improper practices. The program has come under intense scrutiny recently as critics have cited numerous examples of abuse.

In an article written for the Washington Post, Yoder and Cates said that the program, begun with the best of intentions, no longer serves the purpose for which it was created, and is no longer conducted as intended. Accordingly, they say, it should be abolished. Yoder service as director of the office from 1983 until 1985, and was succeeded by Cates, who served until 1989.

As perceived by Yoder and Cates, the civil forfeiture program was devised to remove the profit motive from drug operations. When it was created, there was considerable drug trafficking by cartels and organized crime. The original intent was to allow the government to seize cash obtained with drug profits, thereby neutralizing the monetary incentive to get into the drug business.

In 1986, however, the scope of what could be seized was broadened to include any purchases ostensibly made with drug money. Again, the intent was laudable, designed to prevent cash from being “laundered” through seemingly legitimate purchases or investments. Because of the success of the program, the types of crimes covered by the civil forfeiture program were expanded as well, with more than 200 criminal violations ultimately rendering assets subject to forfeiture.

Problems first started, according to Yoder and Cates, when states started enacting their own civil forfeiture laws, which typically involve less oversight than the federal laws. Then, as departments began to see how profitable the operation could be, many began using the proceeds to provide basic funding for their operations.

As with anything, government officials began to determine the best ways to maximize the amount obtained. Yoder and Cates say that forfeiture decisions would be made based on whether or not assets were owned free and clear, or had debt attached to them. (When the government seizes assets that have been pledged as collateral, they must pay off lienholders before taking any profit). So a district attorney may choose to attempt civil forfeiture on a house with no mortgage, but not on a car that still has debt attached to it.

Claiming that the forfeiture laws as they exist “turn our traditional concept of guilt upside down,” Yoder and Cates say it’s time that they be thrown out, and that other approaches be used.

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