CONGRESSMAN JIM SENSENBRENNER - PROUDLY SERVING WISCONSIN‘S 5TH DISTRICT

Jim's Column

Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Necessary to Protect Citizens’ Constitutional Rights

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Washington, March 30, 2017 | comments
Forfeiture has been a part of the American justice system for more than 200 years. It has been a tool used by law enforcement – both local and federal – to fight criminal activity, such as drug trafficking.

However, over the years, there have been numerous cases of abuse in the forfeiture process, specifically in civil cases. These abuses threaten citizens’ Constitutional rights, put unnecessary burdens on innocent Americans, and weaken our faith in law enforcement. Reform to the current federal forfeiture laws is necessary to curb abuse, restore confidence in law enforcement, and help citizens protect their property rights. 

In civil forfeiture cases, property acts as the defendant, not an individual. If the property is thought to be involved in a crime, it can be confiscated, despite the innocence of its owner. For innocent individuals, getting seized property back can be a long, onerous, and expensive process. 

According to a Washington Post investigation, nearly 62,000 cash seizures have occurred since September 11, 2001, and only a sixth of those cases were legally challenged. This is partly due to the high costs of bringing legal action against the government. Because law enforcement can seize assets despite the innocence of a property owner, many cases harm lawful citizens and puts the burden of proving innocence on them. If an individual can prove their property was not linked to criminal activity, their seized assets can be returned. However, this often involves months – sometimes years – of judicial battles, requiring costly legal representation. 

In 41 percent of civil asset forfeiture cases where there was a challenge, the government returned the seized money. However, 40 percent of those cases took more than a year to resolve and required individuals to sign agreements stating they would not sue the police.

In response to this problem, I have championed common sense reform efforts. Yesterday, I reintroduced the DUE PROCESS Act in the House of Representatives – legislation that would increase transparency in the civil asset forfeiture process, add protections for innocent property owners, and implement additional protections to ensure property owners have the opportunity to contest seizures. It would improve the notice that the government must give property owners, make it easier for them to be heard by a judge, and entitle them to an initial hearing where they can retrieve confiscated property immediately if it was not seized according to the law. 

This legislation would also increase the availability of attorney fees for innocent owners, place a higher burden of proof on the government, and allow for owners of confiscated animals to retrieve their pets faster. 

Civil asset forfeiture is a critical component of the overall effort to fix our broken criminal justice system, and the DUE PROCESS Act would make common sense changes to federal forfeiture laws that help innocent Americans, bringing us one step closer to meaningful reform that would tamper abuse and protect citizens’ Constitutional rights.
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Tags: Judiciary