A new showdown is brewing between a bipartisan group of Senators and the Trump Administration over the controversial law enforcement tactic known as civil asset forfeiture. Also known as civil seizure, the process enables law enforcement officers to take assets from individuals suspected of a crime without actually charging them with a criminal offense. RedTea News previously published a primer on the practice.
Both President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have been vocal defenders of civil asset forfeiture and have reinstated a DOJ policy known as “equitable sharing” that allows state law enforcement agencies to bypass state-imposed limits on financially benefiting from seized property and essentially launder it by turning it over to the federal government in return for up to 80% of its value.
In a letter to Senate Rules Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, Republican Senators Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and Mike Crapo, along with Democrats from the West and New England requested that the reinstated program be defunded, saying it “perversely incentivizes local law enforcement to confiscate suspect property…” They also added that the program is “particularly egregious” because it violates the due process protections of the Constitution.
Multiple investigations, including those by Lucy Parsons Labs and the Nevada Policy Research Institute, found that civil asset forfeiture is an often abused tactic by law enforcement that disproportionately impacts the poor and ethnic minorities. Commonly seized items include cash, jewelry, and vehicles that police believe were the products of or involved in criminal activity, but for which not enough evidence exists to charge the owners with a crime.
The Senate effort builds on one undertaken by the House of Representatives, which has already passed measures that would defund the re-expansion of DOJ’s civil asset forfeiture program. Earlier this year, Republican Senators Rand Paul and Tim Walberg introduced legislation, the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act, that would make sweeping reforms to existing civil asset forfeiture laws. In addition to eliminating the Equitable Sharing program, the bill also would raise the level of proof required to seize property and place the burden on the government to show that the property owner had knowledge it was associated with criminal activity.
For now, the legislation seems unlikely to pass Congress and so the fight to secure Americans’ Constitutional rights goes on in the budget battles that have consumed Capitol Hill. Until those fights are won, millions of Americans remain at risk of having their property taken by the government simply because police believe them to be suspicious.