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"Compromise" Civil Forfeiture Bill Passes House Judiciary Committee


July 1997

On June 20, members of the House Judiciary Committee voted 26-1 in favor of a last minute compromise on a civil forfeiture bill (H.R. 1965), offered by the Chair of the committee, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL). The Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act establishes a low burden of proof on the government, permits defendants to sue the government if their property is damaged, and provides adversarial hearings to determine eligibility for court-appointed lawyers for those who have had all their assets seized (H.R. 1965, "Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act," 105th Congress, 1st Session; Naftali Bendavid, "Drug forfeiture law gets 2nd look," Chicago Tribune, June 21, 1997, sec. 1, p. 10; Knight-Ridder Newspapers, "Congress may limit seizure power in drug cases," Dallas Morning News, June 22, 1997).

Forfeiture laws passed during the 1980s allow federal prosecutors to seize property allegedly used during a drug crime. The burden of proof is on the defendant to prove that their property is not "guilty" of a crime. Current law does not require the government to reimburse a defendant if their property is damaged while in government possession.

"Our civil asset-seizure laws are being used in terribly unjust ways, are depriving innocent citizens of their property with nothing that can be called due process," said Hyde in his opening remarks at a June 11 hearing on the bill. NewsBriefs staff attended the hearing. Testimony was heard from F. Lee Bailey, ACLU president Nadine Strossen, and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), among others. Pilot William Munnerlynn of Las Vegas, testified about the forfeiture of his Lear Jet although he was not convicted of a crime. He unknowingly carried a drug dealer as a passenger on his plane, but federal agents seized his assets, causing his business to go bankrupt.

Responding to pressure from the DOJ, Hyde withdrew his original forfeiture reform bill (H.R. 1835), and substituted a replacement (H.R. 1965). H.R. 1835 had bi-partisan sponsorship, including Ranking Member John Conyers (D-MI), Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA). H.R. 1835 had broad spectrum public support, including the ACLU; Roger Pilon, Director of Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute; the Institute for Justice; and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

But many supporters of H.R 1835 did not endorse the "compromise" bill H.R. 1965. H.R. 1965 "expands rather than contracts the kind of confiscatory governmental powers the bill's sponsors sought to eliminate (emphasis original)," the NACDL said in a June 23 news release. According to the NACDL, the Justice Department "use[d] the pretext of civil forfeiture reform to gain drastic new authority under the criminal forfeiture statutes (emphasis original)." H.R. 1965 would allow the DOJ to seize property without probable cause to believe the property is forfeitable, according to the NACDL. "The new bill [H.R. 1965] is not reform. It is worse than no bill at all," said Roger Pilon in a June 24 Cato news release (NACDL News Release, "Measure to Resist Government Seizure Power Further Compromises Citizens' Rights," June 23, 1997; Cato Institute News Release, "Asset forfeiture bill 'began as Mr. Hyde but wound up Dr. Jeckyl,'" June 24, 1997).

Contact Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde - 2110 RHOB, Washington, DC 20515, Tel: (202) 225-4561, Fax: (202) 225-1166, House Judiciary Committee - (202) 225-3951.