Sessions welcomes restoration of asset forfeiture: "I love that program"

Last Updated Sep 1, 2017 4:49 PM EDT

Attorney General Jeff Sessions welcomed the restoration of the practice of asset forfeiture Friday in a speech at a law enforcement conference in Alabama. 

"I love that program," Sessions said. "We had so much fun doing that, taking drug dealers' money and passing it out to people trying to put drug dealers in jail. What's wrong with that?"

Sessions, reviewing some of the steps the DOJ has taken recently under his watch, went off script from his prepared remarks to express his excitement about the restoration of the controversial practice. Asset forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize property suspected to be connected to a crime, even without an indictment. During former President Barack Obama's administration, then-Attorney General Eric Holder restricted the ability of the federal government to share in the assets local authorities seized. But Sessions in July brought the program back in full swing, allowing police to seize assets, even in states that have outlawed asset forfeiture, if they give some of the proceeds to the federal government. That practice of "adoption" has been used to seize $1 billion in assets over the last decade. 

Sessions' decision to reinstate the program triggered bipartisan backlash, but his mention of the program's return to law enforcement personnel Friday elicited applause. Sessions recognized that some critics don't like the program, although he said he didn't understand why. 

"Well, they don't like it. I'm amazed, these people don't get it. We had a reform in early 2001," Sessions said, mentioning he reached a legislative deal for some reforms to the program with Sen. Chuck Schumer when he was also a senator. 

That legislation, "made some things that tightened it up, relieved some of the concerns from our libertarians, I thought," Sessions added. "But here they're back again, and actually curtailed this program for the last several years, but we're going to keep it out there and as long as we can, we will be doing it. 

"And I know you'll do it in an honorable and effective way and not abuse the system," Sessions added. "But taking ill-gotten gains from drug dealers is the right thing, as far as I'm concerned, and we're going to emphasize that in every way that's appropriate."

Asset forfeiture has long been criticized by civil liberties advocates on constitutional grounds. The program is also criticized because people who have their homes, cars or cash seized wrongly have a difficult time getting those assets back. The DOJ's own watchdog also recently found that many local police departments depend on the funding from seized assets. 

Sessions also praised the return of a program that allows police forces to use excess military equipment, such as tanks and artillery. Obama's DOJ had also curtailed that program.

  • Kathryn Watson

    Kathryn Watson is a politics reporter for CBS News Digital.