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U.S. House Overwhelmingly Approves 
Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill

CIVIL FORFEITURE

Summer 1999

On June 24, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved, by a vote of 375 to 48, legislation to reform federal civil asset forfeiture (H.R. 1658). By a vote of 268 to 155, the House rejected an amendment to the bill, introduced by Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-AR) and supported by the Clinton Administration, which would have gutted the central features of the reform measure and expanded civil asset forfeiture laws (Stephen Labaton, "House Passes Bill Making It Harder to Seize Property," New York Times, June 25, 1999, p. A1; Karen Dillon, "House Votes to Prevent Police From Keeping Drug Money," Kansas City Star, June 25, 1999; Cassandra Burrell, "House Eases Law on Seizure of Property of Criminal Suspects," Seattle Times, June 25, 1999).

On May 4, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act, which gained broad, bipartisan support. The bill had 57 cosponsors, including Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA), John Conyers Jr. (D-MI) and Bob Barr (R-GA), also members of the House Judiciary Committee. The measure passed the Judiciary Committee on June 15 by a 27-3 vote (Michael Grunwald, "Odd Coalition Would Curb Civil Forfeitures," Washington Post, June 23, 1999).

Hyde's measure would (1) require the federal government to prove that seized property is related to a crime; (2) create an "innocent owner" defense, to allow property owners who are unaware of the criminal activity associated with their property to recover their assets; (3) provide indigent defendants with appointed counsel; and (4) eliminate the cost bond required of owners to contest the seizure in court.

Civil asset forfeiture statutes allow law enforcement agencies to seize money and property without the owners being convicted, indicted, or arrested for a crime -- indeed, even if the owners are acquitted. Eighty percent of people who have property forfeited are not charged with a crime. Police are allowed to seize any assets that they claim to believe to be involved with illicit drugs. Civil asset forfeiture is based on the concept that property that is allegedly connected to a crime is itself guilty and can be seized and tried in civil court.

To challenge the forfeiture, persons who have their property taken must pay a bond of 10% of the value of their seized assets (up to $500,000 per item). Owners must prove by a "preponderance of the evidence" that their property is innocent of the charges, an unusual reversal of the "innocent until proven guilty" principle. Many people, regardless of their innocence, cannot or do not pursue the expensive, lengthy, and unpromising litigation process required to regain their forfeited property. The few who win back their property are not allowed to recover their legal fees. Financial assets are returned without interest. Nor can property owners recover for damage caused to the property by the government's actions or negligence. Some minor offenders do not challenge forfeitures, fearing that doing so will inspire authorities to pursue major criminal charges against them.

These procedures can provide law enforcement with incentives to seek forfeiture of property because most of the proceeds are retained by the law enforcement agency. Rep. Hyde and other critics say this has led to gross police abuses.

Opponents of the Hyde measure, including the Clinton Administration, said it would make it more difficult to combat crime. "Let us not turn back the clock on the war on drugs," said Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-MN), who supported the Hutchinson amendment. Police organizations said the measure will allow suspected drug traffickers to hide their assets before trial and make it easier for them to continue trafficking while their cases are pending. They say free legal aid will encourage criminals to make frivolous claims. "We know there have been high-profile cases of abuse, but these laws aren't about taking property from innocent grandmothers," said Gene Voegtlin, legislative counsel for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

At the end of 1998, state and federal authorities had 24,903 seized assets valued at $1 billion on deposit. This included 7,799 cash seizures, valued at $349 million; 1,181 parcels of real estate, valued at $205 million; 45 businesses, valued at $49 million, and 15,878 other assets, valued at $398 million.

"Americans are a step closer to being protected from some of the worst abuses of police power," said Scott Ehlers, then-senior policy analyst at the Drug Policy Foundation (DPF), in response to House passage of the Hyde bill. "Civil asset forfeiture basically provides police with a way to run around the Constitution by allowing them to punish someone without having to go through the criminal justice system." (DPF  recently released a policy briefing on asset forfeiture, authored by Ehlers, which is an excellent briefing on the subject. RCT.)
MAJOR NEWSPAPERS EDITORIALIZE IN FAVOR OF CIVIL ASSET FORFEITURE REFORM

"Critics of lenient asset forfeiture laws have been complaining for years and are finally being heard. By passing H.R. 1658 the House can begin to reverse a trend that has too often made the War on Drugs a war on individual rights" (Editorial, "Sanity on Asset Seizures," Orange County Register, June 23, 1999).

"[T]he senators should join their House colleagues and put a stop to civil forfeitures. The practice is un-American" (Editorial, "Private Property," Houston Chronicle, June 28, 1999).

"[S]eizing goods from the people is not punishing the goods; it's punishing the people. Effectively, it's a kind of fine. And just as people do not have to prove themselves innocent to avoid fines or prison, they should not have to prove their goods innocent to get them back from police" (Editorial, "The Long, Grabby Arm of the Law," San Jose Mercury News, June 28, 1999).

"The administration, egged on by the Justice Department, opposed the [Hyde] measure, but the House rightly rejected its weak substitute. Now the matter goes on to the Senate, which should approve the bill. Then President Clinton should sign it and stop the abuse" (Editorial, "Stop Civil Forfeiture Abuses," Christian Science Monitor, June 29, 1999).

"These reforms will not hurt the anticrime efforts of law enforcement. But they should prevent egregious abuses. The House passage provided a chance for unusual bipartisan posturing, but the bill itself brings fairness to civil forfeiture laws. We hope the Senate takes up the measure and has the good sense to follow the House's lead" (Editorial, "Getting Control of Forfeiture Abuses," Tampa Tribune, July 3, 1999).

Rep. Henry Hyde - 2110 RHOB, Washington, DC 20515, Tel: (202) 225-4561, Fax: (202) 225-1166, Web: <http://www.house.gov/hyde/>.

Drug Policy Foundation, 4455 Connecticut Ave., NW, Suite B-500, Washington, DC 20008-2328, Tel: (202) 537-5005, Fax: (202) 537-3007, E-mail: <dpf@dpf.org>, Web: <http://www.dpf.org>.

International Association of Chiefs of Police - 515 N. Washington St., Alexandria, VA 22314-2357, Tel: (703) 836-6767, Fax: (703) 836-4543, Web: <http://www.theiacp.org>.