Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) clashed with a national law enforcement organization on Wednesday during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about proposed curbs to police power to seize property without proving a crime has occurred.
Grassley, the panel’s chairman, is pushing to reform federal civil-asset forfeiture laws that have enabled local and state police to take billions of dollars from people without filing charges or warrants.
In a statement, Fraternal Order of Police president Chuck Canterbury said the proposal would deprive local and state departments of “hundreds of millions” in funding needed to fight crime and terror.
Grassley dismissed the statement, saying civil-asset forfeiture laws have created a “perverse incentive” for police to cut corners and seize cash and property without clear evidence of a crime.
The position staked out by the police group “dismisses the need for real reform and demonstrates the absurdity of a system of justice in which some in law enforcement appear to value funding their own operations over protecting civil rights,” Grassley said.
The hearing is part of a broad, bipartisan push in recent months to reform civil-asset forfeiture laws.
A Washington Post investigation last year found that since 2001, local and state police across the nation have seized $2.5 billion in cash from 62,000 people, without filing warrants or criminal charges. Some property owners had to fight for a year or more to get their money back.
The seizures were made under federal law, through the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program. The program allowed police to keep up to 80 percent of the seizure proceeds.
In January, Justice announced policies limiting state and local police participation in Equitable Sharing. Justice has also imposed new rules limiting the ability of authorities to seize bank accounts through civil measures.
In February, a House Judiciary subcommittee agreed that legislative changes are needed. A host of other lawmakers from both parties are pushing new legislation. Among them is Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky).
In a brief appearance at the committee hearing on Wednesday, Paul strongly supported the reform efforts. He cited the Post stories and said civil-asset forfeiture has a disproportionate impact on minorities.
“This committee has an opportunity to end an injustice,” Paul said. “Civil forfeiture turns justice on its head.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee’s ranking member, said civil-asset forfeiture has a place in law enforcement. “When used appropriately, this tool deprives criminals of their profits, and it deters crime,” he said.
But Leahy said, “We have have all seen the troubling reports. Roadside stops that resemble shakedowns. Seizure of bank accounts.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) opposed any reform, saying he has heard from police groups across the country who said civil-asset forfeiture is an important law enforcement tool. Ending the sharing of seized cash with local departments “would be a huge detriment to law enforcement,” Sessions said.
Among those testifying was a motel owner from Tewksbury, Mass., whose property was seized several years ago after police alleged it facilitated drug activity. He was never charged with a crime.
“Forfeitures laws are unjust and un-American,” the motel owner, Russ Caswell, told the committee.
He was represented by Darpana Sheth, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning civil liberties group that specializes in civil-asset forfeiture abuses.
Sheth said police often use the proceeds of seizures as unaccountable “slush funds” to pad budgets. Innocent people are often swept up in seizure actions and then must fight long, costly battles with the federal government to recover their money and property, she said.
“Federal forfeiture programs must be reformed to end the distorted incentives for law enforcement and strengthen protections for property owners,” Sheth said.
The hearing’s key exchanges involved Canterbury and Grassley. Canterbury asked the committee to hold off on new reforms to give police a chance to measure the impact of Justice’s recent policy changes.
“Like any government program, there can be found instances of abuse, and the FOP supports measures to combat such abuses and to improve the integrity of the program,” Canterbury said. Enacting new restriction without more study “is simply not sound public policy,” he added.
Grassley was unsympathetic. He noted that Congress attempted to reform civil-asset forfeiture laws in 2000. That effort fell short because of opposition from police, who retained the right to keep 80 percent of the proceeds of seizures under the Equitable Sharing program.
“The most important procedural reforms were gutted at the behest of law enforcement,” he said. “So the abuses that existed in 2000 have only grown.”
“I have been disappointed with law enforcement’s response to the call for reform,” Grassley said. “Legislation is necessary.”