WASHINGTON – Led by an unlikely grouping of conservatives and liberals, the House on Tuesday voted to reverse course on Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ civil asset forfeiture expansion.
Asset forfeiture is the controversial law enforcement practice that allows police to seize property and assets – including cars, homes and bank accounts – from individuals suspected of crime or illegal activity, regardless of whether there’s a conviction. Critics and civil liberties groups have blasted the practice, arguing that it places an unfair burden on the suspect and encourages law enforcement corruption.
Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Don Beyer (D-Va.) banded together in introducing an amendment to the 2018 federal government spending package. The amendment was approved through voice vote on the House floor Tuesday.
The Obama administration in January 2015 implemented measures that limited the Department of Justice’s civil forfeiture practices, but Sessions in July directed his agency to reverse course, calling asset forfeiture an effective tool in reducing crime in certain circumstances. Amendment 126 bars the administration from using appropriated funds to eliminate the Obama-era restrictions. The Obama-era measures specifically targeted so-called equitable sharing, a process by which local officials can circumvent state law and work with federal officials in confiscating property.
“This practice is outrageous,” Amash, who led the amendment, said on the House floor during debate. “It supplants the authority of states to regulate their own law enforcement, and it further mires the federal government in unconstitutional asset forfeitures.”
Last month, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers wrote a letter to Sessions, asking him to withdraw the expansion proposal. Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) led the way, three months after a separate bipartisan group in the Senate penned a letter to Sessions asking him to “pare down” asset forfeiture abuses. The Senate group included Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).
Paul and Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) have crafted legislation for the Fair Act, a bill that would mean sweeping reform for civil asset forfeiture. The legislation would eliminate equitable sharing and require clear and convincing criminal evidence to allow property seizures, among other reforms.
According to statistics from the National Libertarian Party, asset forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize about $5 billion in assets annually. At least 14 states have implemented measures to dramatically curtail the practice or eliminate it altogether.
Clark Neily, vice president for the Cato Institute’s Criminal Justice project, in an interview on Wednesday called civil asset forfeiture “one of the worst public policies” in America. Before joining Cato, Neily served as senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, one of the leading organizations challenging civil asset forfeiture. He argued that law enforcement should require a conviction to seize property, saying that most Americans would agree that threshold is “bedrock” due process. Asset forfeiture, he said, allows for very little due process and tremendous incentive for abuse.
“I think it really undermines the credibility and the moral authority of law enforcement to be perceived as policing for profit, which is what civil forfeiture is,” he said. “This idea that civil forfeiture is a tool that’s important to law enforcement, that they can take people’s property without actually convicting them of a crime, frankly I find that argument falls apart on its own under the strength of its own shortcomings.”
He said that Sessions and the federal government are headed in the wrong direction, and criticized officials for trying to entice states to follow.
“I’ve been doing public policy for almost 20 years,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an issue where states move more quickly and more decisively than civil forfeiture. To have nearly a third of the states effectively abolish civil forfeiture in the span of a few years really underscores what a bad policy it is and how desperate the need is for reform.”