The writer, a Republican, represents Michigan’s 7th Congressional District in the U.S. House.
Imagine you are driving down the highway on your way to buy a car. You spent months researching years, makes and models, and you finally found somebody who was selling the exact ride you were looking for at a reasonable price. Suddenly, police pull you over for allegedly going 37 mph in a 35 mph zone. Upon discovering the $8,500 in cash you have on hand, the officers take you to jail and threaten to charge you with money laundering unless you turn over the money. Frightened, you give it to them.
This may sound like something out of a Hollywood movie, but it’s a true story, and incidents like it happen all too often across the country because of our civil forfeiture laws.
Fortunately, the victim in the above story, Roderick Daniels, had his property returned by officials due to media attention and legal pressure. But the power to take property without due process continues to be abused by local, state and federal law enforcement officials. In my state of Michigan, grocery store owner Terry Dehko had his bank account seized by the IRS because it suspected him of being a money launderer. Dehko would make cash deposits in the bank across the street every night to reduce the threat of robbery and because of coverage limits on his store’s insurance policy. Charges were never filed, but Dehko had to fight in court to prove that his money was not being used in a criminal enterprise.
Many of the abuses occur at the state and local levels, but the federal government encourages them through “equitable-sharing partnerships,” a practice that allows police agencies to circumvent state laws that might otherwise tie their hands. Nebraska has some of the strongest anti-forfeiture laws in the country, but in 2003, the local police used equitable sharing to work with federal officials to seize $124,700 in cash from Emiliano Gonzolez under the federal government’s lesser legal standard of proof. Gonzolez was never charged with a crime, but he lost his cash, which he had intended to use to buy a refrigerated truck for a produce business.
In a country founded on principles of due process and property rights, no one should be comfortable with a system that allows law enforcement to seize personal property without a finding of guilt or, in many cases, even leveling a criminal charge. More states are looking into reforming their forfeiture laws, and this year Minnesota became the latest to push back against such abuses. However, as long as equitable sharing remains an option for local officials who want to work around state laws, such reforms will be nullified. The profit motive is too strong. Last year, equitable-sharing agreements funneled $600 million to police budgets. Clearly, with the size of the federal Asset Forfeiture Fund exceeding $2 billion in 2013, civil forfeiture is big business for the government.
In response to these abuses, I recently introduced the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act, which would raise the level of proof of a substantial nexus to criminal activity that must be met before property can be seized. The legislation would also bolster the “innocent owner defense” by requiring the government to show that an owner was aware that property was being used in criminal activity. Finally, along with imposing greater reporting requirements on the Justice Department, the bill would require the attorney general to certify that equitable-sharing agreements are not entered into simply to get around state laws that would prohibit a forfeiture. These common-sense reforms can help restore the balance of power between the government and its citizens.
Policing is a necessary and vital element of an orderly society, and the large majority of our law enforcement personnel do difficult work with great professionalism and integrity — but our constitutional framework emphasizes the need to uphold individual rights above all. We should not accept a system in which Americans must live in fear that their property could be seized by those whose chief mission should be to serve and protect.