Two dozen civil liberties activists, legal specialists and Capitol Hill staffers from across the political spectrum convened Thursday to discuss reforms for civil asset-forfeiture laws, which allow local and state police to take cash and property from Americans without proving a crime has occurred.
The meeting is the latest indication of growing dissatisfaction with a system that has generated billions of dollars in proceeds for police and the Justice Department and other federal agencies over the past decade.
Representatives of the Institute for Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association, the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, along with congressional staffers from both parties, strategized on possible legislative remedies to curb abuses.
“The tide is really shifting,” said Darpana Sheth, an attorney at the libertarian-leaning Institute for Justice, a group that specializes in civil asset forfeiture and published a study called Policing for Profit.
“You cannot afford to wait,” said Bruce Nicholson, legislative counsel for government affairs at the American Bar Association.
But participants agreed there was only a remote chance legislation would move through Congress soon because of impending elections and ongoing partisanship.
The session was organized by the Institute for Justice after a series of articles in The Washington Post showed that local and state police have seized more that $2.5 billion from people without filing warrants or indictments since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The seizures came under the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program, the largest asset-forfeiture program.
Under Equitable Sharing, state and local departments and drug task forces can keep up to 80 percent of the seizures, with the remainder going to Justice or another federal agency.
In September, Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.) and Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) introduced legislation that would require police to produce clear and convincing evidence of a tie to criminal activity before making a seizure. Their bill was a companion to legislation introduced in July by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that also would require that seized assets go into a general fund instead of to individual departments.
Two former directors of Equitable Sharing have publicly called for an end to the program, saying that it has been used with a “heavy hand” that has deprived innocent people of their rights and property. “The program began with good intentions but now, having failed in both purpose and execution, it should be abolished,” John Yoder and Brad Cates wrote in a Sept. 19 article on The Post’s editorial pages.
The Justice Department has defended the program, saying it hurts criminal organizations, deprives criminals of the proceeds of wrongdoing and serves as a deterrent to crime.
The 24 participants in Thursday’s meeting discussed a variety of approaches. Hill staffers recommended a bipartisan push to recruit co-sponsors of legislation. The activists discussed creation of a national media campaign to bring attention to victims.
Several participants said they would try to ensure that lawmakers press any nominees to replace Eric H. Holder Jr., the outgoing attorney general, about their positions on civil asset laws.
Paul’s legislative counsel, Billy Easley, said many lawmakers will tread carefully for fear of offending police. “They’re worried about what the cops are going to say,” Easley said.