U.S. House lawmakers on Tuesday adopted a trio of bipartisan measures meant to rein in civil asset forfeiture, a controversial law enforcement practice that allows police to confiscate property from individuals without ever convicting them of a crime, and often without even charging them.
In a series of unanimous voice votes, the House moved to block the implementation of a Justice Department directive earlier this year that encouraged these types of seizures. In July, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he was reversing Obama-era restrictions on adoptive forfeitures, which had allowed state and local law enforcement agencies to seize property suspected of being linked to a crime, before passing the civil cases off to federal prosecutors.
Under this process, local police agencies could evade stricter state laws on civil forfeiture by deferring to more lax federal standards. Critics saw Sessions’ directive as a threat to the growing movement to clamp down on civil forfeiture at the state level. Since 2014, more than 20 states and Washington, D.C., have passed reforms addressing the practice, often adding protections for property owners that extend far beyond those at the federal level.
Although the DOJ’s policy change was accompanied by a handful of safeguards that officials claimed would protect against abuse, some House lawmakers were apparently not convinced. The three amendments all seek to deny federal funds to the department’s adoptive forfeiture program, effectively nullifying July’s announcement.
The three measures are attached to a larger spending bill that is expected to be approved later this week, which would send the package to the Senate.
Although there’s little substantive difference between the amendments, the effort brought together lawmakers from across the ideological spectrum.
Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), a libertarian-leaning Republican and regular critic of civil forfeiture, drafted one of the proposals.
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a freshman Democrat and longtime constitutional law professor, made a pitch for his own amendment, asking for support from anyone who “hold[s] dear the idea of due process and the presumption of innocence as it applies, not just to us as people, but also to our private property.”
“Under this dubious practice, law enforcement may seize a citizen’s cash and property simply because someone suspects it of being connected to criminal activity, without convicting, indicting, arresting or even charging the property owner with having committed a crime and without proving or even alleging in court that the property is somehow connected to criminal activity,” Raskin said.
“In order to get your property back, you have to go out and hire a lawyer, you have to go to court, and you have to prove that your property was obtained through innocent means, completely reversing the constitutional presumption of innocence that’s at the heart of due process,” he added.
Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), another reliable opponent of civil forfeiture, also spoke in favor of his version of the amendment, before urging his colleagues to take more aggressive legislative action to address abuses of the practice.
“Ultimately, this amendment is a starting point and we can’t stop here,” he said. “America was founded on the principles of due process and property rights, and these principles must be vigorously defended.”
Supporters of civil asset forfeiture reform hailed the passage of the amendments as a heartening development.
“It shows that Congress is engaged on these issues and that they’re doing these things the right way,” said Robert Everett Johnson, an attorney for the libertarian public interest law firm Institute for Justice, in an interview with HuffPost. “Congress is speaking with one voice, unanimously repudiating [Sessions’] policy change and unanimously saying there needs to be reform here.”
The Institute for Justice supports abolishing civil forfeiture altogether, and believes property should only be forfeited in connection with a criminal conviction. With Tuesday’s votes showing sweeping opposition to the practice, Johnson is hopeful that more ambitious action will come next.
“This is a great first step toward civil forfeiture reform, but at the same time, it just puts us back to where we were two months ago,” said Johnson. “What Congress really needs to do is take up the cause of broader reform.”