U.S. Justice Department taps prosecutor to oversee asset forfeiture program

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department has tapped a North Carolina-based prosecutor for a new role designed to provide more checks and balances to its civil asset forfeiture program, following criticism of its abuse by the police.

Corey Ellis, the first assistant U.S. attorney of the Western District of North Carolina, will serve as director of asset forfeiture accountability starting in January, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a statement on Thursday.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions in July revived a controversial civil asset forfeiture policy that allows local, state and federal police to seize cash and other assets from people if they believe there is probable cause that they had committed a crime.

Many Republicans and Democrats say the program threatens due process rights and creates a perverse incentive for police to seize assets knowing their departments will get to keep some of the proceeds under an equitable sharing arrangement with the Justice Department.

The Obama administration rolled back the program in 2015.

The Justice Department said in October it would hire someone to conduct oversight of the program to prevent abuse.

However, hiring a prosecutor to oversee the program will not solve the underlying problem, Robert Johnson, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, said in an interview.

Short of abolishing civil asset forfeiture, Congress should pass a law that affords people a prompt due process hearing before a judge after their property is seized, he said.

"This is an attempt by the Justice Department to look like they are doing something, but nobody should be fooled. This isn't going to make the problem go away. What we really need here is meaningful reform from Congress."

Ellis will update the department's asset forfeiture policy guidance and improve controls over the use of program funds, the department said.

He has served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Asheville Division of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of North Carolina, where he handled a variety of cases from drug smuggling to firearm offenses.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Richard Chang)

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