Members of a House Judiciary subcommittee agreed Wednesday that legislative changes are needed to prevent local and state police from making cash and property seizures under federal law without clear evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
Republicans and Democrats on the subcommittee on crime, terrorism, homeland security and investigations agreed on the same message: Previous efforts to change civil asset-forfeiture practices have fallen short, and abuses are widespread.
“It’s hard to believe this can happen in America,” said the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who is leading reform efforts. “The government is seizing billions of dollars of cash and property from Americans, often without charging them with a crime.”
The hearing is one of multiple efforts in both the House and the Senate this year aimed at enacting new curbs on such seizures. Earlier Wednesday, the House Ways and Means subcommittee on oversight held a hearing that focused on the impact on small businesses of civil seizures by the Internal Revenue Service.
Lawmakers said they intend to go beyond reforms announced last month by U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. In a Jan. 16 order, Holder prohibited federal agencies from “adopting” seizures by local and state police into federal asset forfeiture programs. On Tuesday, the Justice Department clarified the reach of that order with rules that require direct involvement and review by federal authorities before a seizure can be processed under federal law.
A Washington Post investigation last year found that local and state police have seized $2.5 billion in cash from nearly 62,000 people since 2001 without warrants or indictments.
In an opening statement, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said media reports demonstrate that “there are systemic problems in the current system of civil forfeiture.”
Goodlatte is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and his support for reforms will be crucial.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) said the law needs to better protect individuals from government overreach.
“The size of these amounts helps put into focus the tension between our property and due process rights on the one hand, and the government’s interest in maintaining this funding stream on the other, often relying on civil forfeiture procedures involving the low standard of proof,” she said. “Unfortunately, it is increasingly apparent that our laws are not sufficient in this regard.”
Among those testifying was Kenneth A. Blanco, deputy assistant attorney general in the criminal division at the Justice Department. He said that Congress needs to take a balanced approach that preserves asset forfeiture “as a critical legal tool that serves a number of compelling law enforcement purposes.”
At the same time, he said, the department is reviewing its programs to minimize abuses.
“The department takes seriously any and all allegations of perceived or actual abuse of the forfeiture program,” he said.
Darpana Sheth, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit civil liberties group, testified that the evidence of abuses has become overwhelming and outweighs the benefits. She said police should not be financing their operations through seizures.