New Bill Would Curb Law Enforcement’s Use of ‘Civil Forfeiture’ To Seize Assets

Passage of the bipartisan legislation would be a major victory for property rights.

AP/Carolyn Kaster
Representative Jamie Raskin on Capitol Hill, February 9, 2023. AP/Carolyn Kaster

A bipartisan bill in the House signals the potential for a deal on federal civil forfeiture laws, changes to which would be a major victory for property rights in America.

The Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration or FAIR Act, reintroduced by Representatives Tim Walberg, a Republican, and Jamie Raskin, a Democrat, would overhaul federal civil forfeiture law.

Under current law, the civil forfeiture process allows law enforcement officials to seize personal and private property of individuals — and then keep or sell that property — by simply alleging it was involved in a crime, even if charges are never brought.

Civil forfeiture stories have often spurred outrage over their unfairness, such as in 2010, when one Alabama computer repair shop owner had more than 150 computers confiscated by police. Reportedly acting on a tip that the owner was receiving stolen goods, police confiscated the computers, some of which were customers’ property undergoing repair, and never returned them despite dropping charges.

The new measure before Congress is squarely aimed at ending civil forfeiture as it currently exists and removing the profit motive for law enforcement in seizing property. “The lawless seizure and ‘forfeiture’ of people’s private property by police officers is becoming standard operating procedure in many parts of the country,” Mr. Raskin said. “We want to restore the presumption of innocence, fair judicial process, and the opportunity to be heard.”

According to the senior attorney for the National Initiative to End Forfeiture Abuse, Dan Alban, the act would take “an even stronger stand against abusive forfeitures” than past measures. “Protecting Americans’ property rights isn’t a partisan issue and we’re glad to see lawmakers from across the aisle working together to pass true reforms,” Mr. Alban said.

The law would altogether end administrative forfeiture, or the forfeit of property seized by federal agencies, and instead require that only federal courts could order civil forfeiture to the federal government. The act would also provide for those seeking a return of property from the federal government to have access to legal counsel throughout the process.

The act would also reroute funds from civil forfeiture away from the budgets of federal agencies and toward the treasury’s general fund, meaning Congress would have control over the money instead of executive agencies. It would also eliminate “equitable sharing,” a program that allows federal agencies to evade state forfeiture laws by paying state and local law enforcement officials.

The burden of proof for civil forfeiture would also be raised to require the government to provide clear and convincing evidence that property owners knew their property was being used in crimes.

Currently, all that the government needs to do is show that it is more likely than not that the property is connected to a crime. Property owners can also have their property seized if it is implicated in a crime committed by someone else.

This legislation would be a milestone in the protection of property rights in the arena of civil forfeiture, which has attracted an increasing amount of attention in recent years due to examples of civil forfeiture abuse.

One example comes from 2017, when a Wyoming man had more than $91,000, money he intended to use to purchase a recording studio at Madison, Wisconsin, confiscated by police. After police pulled over the would-be studio owner for the way he was wearing his seat belt and an alleged lane violation, the man consented to having his car searched.

The police found the money in cash, stashed in a speaker in the back of his car, and said he could go if he signed a waiver giving up the cash. He was only given a $25 ticket. Although the musician eventually got his money back, cases like his have led to outrage over the practice, with many people in his position never seeing their property returned.

The New York Sun

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