BY CRISTINA MARCOS – The Hill – 09/12/17
The House voted Tuesday to curb the law enforcement practice of seizing cash and property from people who are suspected of illegal activity but who have not necessarily been charged.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers pushed an amendment to a government-spending package for 2018 that would prohibit the Trump administration from using funds to remove restrictions on the use of asset forfeiture. The practice allows law enforcement to seize cash and property and keep at least part of the proceeds.
Opposition to relaxing asset-forfeiture limits produced a strange-bedfellows effort by members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and liberal progressives. Sponsors of the amendment included 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.).
Their amendment would specifically restrict the use of what’s known as “adoptive forfeiture,” which allows the federal government to take assets seized by local authorities.
Critics say that the practice has allowed local authorities to circumvent state laws that were stricter than under federal statute. About two dozen states have laws that make it harder for authorities to seize property if a person has not been convicted of a crime.
“This practice is outrageous. It supplants the authority of states to regulate their own law enforcement and it further mires the federal government in unconstitutional asset forfeitures,” Amash said during House floor debate.
The amendment was easily adopted by voice vote. Lawmakers are expected to pass the spending package with the attached amendment later this week.
In 2015, then-Attorney General Eric Holder issued orders restricting the federal government from taking assets from local authorities, with exceptions for public safety reasons.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed the Department of Justice in July to reverse the policy, saying that “asset forfeiture is one of law enforcement’s most effective tools to reduce crime and its use should be encouraged where appropriate.”
“To ensure that this tool is used appropriately, the Department is implementing safeguards to make certain that there is sufficient evidence of criminal activity before a federal adoption occurs, that the evidence is well documented, that our state and local law enforcement partners have appropriate training to use this tool, and that there is appropriate supervisory review of decisions to approve forfeiture,” Sessions added.
Defenders of asset forfeiture say it eliminates criminals’ proceeds from illegal activity, and instead uses the funds for law enforcement activities and compensation to victims of the associated crimes.
A Justice Department inspector general report in March found that more than $4 billion in forfeited funds have been given to crime victims since 2000.
It also said that forfeiture proceeds have provided more than $6 billion to state and local law enforcement over the same time period.