July 19 (UPI) -- The U.S. Justice Department announced plans Wednesday to seize property and money suspected of being used illegally in crimes, including drug-related incidents.
The move is a reinstatement of policy that President Barack Obama's administration dropped.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the new policy, in which local officials rely on the feds to ease the process of seizing assets from criminal suspects. The policy allows law enforcement to take property without proving a crime occurred.
"We need to send a clear message that crime does not pay," Sessions said at a Justice Department event, where he was joined by state and local law enforcement officials and prosecutors. "With this new policy, the American people can be confident knowing we are following the law and taking action to defund criminals and at the same time protecting the rights of law-abiding people."
Sessions said the DOJ will not seize property unless the state involved provides information demonstrating that the seizure was justified from the beginning with probable cause.
"We must protect the rights of law-abiding people whose property is used without their consent," Sessions said, adding that DOJ is implementing safeguards to make it more difficult to conduct seizures of less than $10,000, including requiring some level of criminality.
"If a federal agency seeks to adopt cash equal to or less than $10,000 and none of these safeguards is present, then the agency may proceed with the adoption only if the U.S. Attorney's Office first concurs," Deborah Connor, acting chief of the money laundering and asset recovery section of the DOJ wrote in a directive.
In addition, the directive said state and local law enforcement agencies must send individual property owners notice within 45 days of the seizure.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosentein said the effort will combat the nationwide wave of opioid-related deaths.
"I think it is a particularly important at this time to return this tool to local law enforcement because we are fighting a significant rise in drug overdose deaths," Rosenstein said at the event with Sessions. "That's a striking rise in overdose deaths and that motivates many of the policies the attorney general is adopting."
Public officials and political observers across the political spectrum have opposed seizures, claiming the practice is inconsistent with the Constitution's requirement that guilt be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
"This is a troubling decision for the due process protections afforded to us under the Fourth Amendment as well as the growing consensus we've seen nationwide on this issue," Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., told Politico. "Ramping up adoptive forfeitures would circumvent much of the progress state legislatures have made to curb forfeiture abuse and 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."
But some Democrats support the seizures, including Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, who has been pressing for a more aggressive response to the opioid epidemic.
President Donald Trump favors asset forfeiture. Discussing the topic with sheriffs from throughout the country in February, he said he wanted to "go back on" asset forfeiture.
"I mean how simple can anything be," Trump said. "You all agree with that I think? I mean do you even understand the other side on that?"
CBS News reported that 24 states have laws limiting the practice, but local law enforcement bypass those restrictions by giving seized assets to the federal government instead of returning them to their owners.