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DOJ eyeing Americans ‘like ATMs,’ spending over $6 billion to aid civil asset forfeitures, watchdog says

The DOJ approved billions in new spending on forfeiture investigations. Here's why a nonprofit law firm worries it could be bad news for average Americans.

The Department of Justice is shelling out more than $6 billion to private companies to manage its asset forfeiture investigations, raising alarm from one nonprofit law firm that accuses police of "treating ordinary Americans like ATMs" and seizing their cash.

"You've probably heard the adage, 'you've gotta spend money to make money.' Here, it's 'you've gotta spend money to take money,'" said Dan Alban, head of the Institute for Justice's National Initiative to End Forfeiture.

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Asset forfeiture is the process through which the government seizes money or other property that is believed to be linked to a crime. Most federal forfeitures are civil, meaning the government can keep the seized property without ever charging the owner with a crime.

The DOJ announced earlier this year more than $6 billion in contracts awarded to multiple private companies to help with asset forfeiture investigations. Contractors are expected to help with everything from investigating and identifying assets for seizure to record keeping and providing courtroom testimony, according to DOJ records.

"These are six billion reasons we need civil forfeiture reform now," Alban said. "Congress must act to prevent law enforcement from treating ordinary Americans like ATMs."

Forfeiture generated more than $45.7 billion in revenue for the federal government alone between 2000 and 2019, according to IJ. Proceeds are often split between federal and local police agencies

"Federal forfeiture is a big business," Alban said. "And it's a particularly big business for the law enforcement agencies that get to spend the money out of these funds."

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The FBI touts forfeiture as an important tool for "disrupting and dismantling criminal and terrorist organizations and punishing criminals" as well as "compensating victims and protecting communities."

"Forfeiture can also serve as a deterrent to others who might be considering criminal activities," the FBI wrote in a 2017 release.

But critics like IJ argue innocent Americans are often targeted by forfeiture. Fighting to get seized property back is difficult and expensive since forfeiture effectively places the burden of proof on the property owner, not the government, and because it's a civil case, there is no right to a public defender, according to Alban.

One of IJ's clients had her nest egg seized during an FBI raid on U.S. Private Vaults in 2021. The FBI seized safety deposit boxes and their contents — totaling around $86 million in cash and tens of millions more in gold, silver, jewelry and other valuables — from 58-year-old Linda Martin and other customers.

"The FBI, they feel like they can get away with anything," Martin previously told Fox News. "I just feel like it's unfair."

U.S. Private Vaults later pleaded guilty to money laundering, but neither Martin nor hundreds of other customers were charged with a crime.

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Many other federal agencies can utilize forfeiture too, from the Drug Enforcement Administration to the Postal Inspection Service. Border Patrol officers seize more than $200,000 on average every day at the nation's ports of entry and have confiscated more than $41.3 million in fiscal year 2023 so far.

"Everyone should be concerned about this because you could be a victim," Alban said. "You could be someone whose cash, whose car, whose home gets seized in order to support these funds."

A previous IJ report found that 78% of all forfeiture cases the DOJ processed between 2000 and 2019 were administrative, meaning agencies seized property with little or no judicial oversight.

"If the federal government is spending billions of dollars to do it, that means they're spending billions of dollars to target someone just like you," he added.

To hear more from Alban, click here.

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