The police practice of seizing cash or property linked to suspected criminal activity is taking flak on Capitol Hill, and groups advocating for reforming federal asset forfeiture rules see the effort taking off this year.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle fear that asset forfeiture, which doesn’t require a charge or conviction, runs counter to the rule of law and are pushing to follow the lead of several dozen states that already have modified its use.
In a move seen as a rebuke of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Republican-led House last week adopted three amendments to an appropriations bill that would defund efforts by the Justice Department to expand the use of asset forfeiture.
The amendments, offered by Republican Reps. Justin Amash and Tim Walberg, and Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin, were each passed by an overwhelming voice vote.
“We are used to having pretty robust opposition and the vote was so pleasantly anticlimatic that we really feel hopeful that this is something that will catch fire and will energize our champions in the Senate,” Holly Harris, executive director of the bipartisan Justice Action Network.
The amendments, which also would have to make it into a Senate version of the appropriations bill, were aimed at impeding directives rolled out by Mr. Sessions earlier this year.
In July, the attorney general reinstated asset forfeiture policies that make it easier for state and local law enforcement to seize cash and property from people by allowing federal authorities to “adopt” the seizures and take control of the property. Local agencies can then get up to 80 percent of the proceeds of the seizure back while federal authorities keep the remainder.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder had rescinded that policy. Challenging the seizures can be a lengthy legal battle.
Jason Pye, the director of public policy and legislative affairs at the conservative group FreedomWorks, said lawmakers are facing more pressure than ever to reform the federal practice.
“People’s property are being taken often without any sort of due process in place,” Mr. Pye said. “Attorney General Sessions is on an island by himself now.”
Since 2014, 24 states have reformed asset forfeiture laws with three states — North Carolina, New Mexico, and Nebraska — abolishing civil forfeiture entirely, according to the Institute for Justice, which encourages asset forfeiture reform. And the stories of people who have cars, or cash or other items seized by law enforcement but were never charged with crimes have been difficult to ignore.
In the Senate, a bipartisan group supportive of reforming asset forfeiture polices is ready for action.
Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, introduced a bill earlier this year that requires law enforcement to prove “clear and convincing” evidence rather than a preponderance of evidence in civil asset forfeiture cases. It also would require the federal portion of proceeds to Treasury Department’s general fund rather than the DOJ.
A spokesman for one of the co-sponsors, Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, said he “would love to see the Senate take up asset forfeiture reform.”
The head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Iowa Republican Charles E. Grassley, also has called for better oversight and the need to ensure such programs are “accomplishing the intended outcome of helping victims, not creating new ones.”
Last week as the House took action, the Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Customs and Border Protection after the agency relied on civil forfeiture to seize a man’s truck as he sought to cross the border into Mexico. Agents found five bullets in the glove-box of Gerardo Serrano’s truck and seized the vehicle, claiming it was used to transport “munitions of war.” That was two years ago. Mr. Serrano has never been charged with a crime, and despite paying a deposit of $3,800 to CBP to contest the seizure, he has never been granted a hearing to try to get his truck back.
The momentum in the House on the asset forfeiture amendments could mean that lawmakers will try to ensure some form of amendment is included in the final bill negotiated with the Senate, or that they extract guarantees for stand alone legislation to address their concerns in the future, Mr. Pye said.
“I think it puts them in a strong negotiating position when they go to conference,” Mr. Pye said. “The mood is there. They want to do something on it.”
The amendments to the 2018 House appropriates bill from Mr. Walberg, Michigan Republican, and Mr. Raskin, Maryland Democrat, would block the use of any money to implement Mr. Sessions asset forfeiture policy. The bill from Mr. Amash, Michigan Republican, would prevent any money from being used for the asset forfeiture activities that were banned by Mr. Holder.
• Andrea Noble can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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