By Todd Ruger, CQ Roll Call

The Justice Department defended civil asset forfeiture programs Wednesday, as lawmakers and legal experts described them as sorely in need of another legislative overhaul.

The forfeiture law sparked controversy after media reports that law enforcement has seized money or property without warrants or indictments, in what appears to be policing for profit, lawmakers said at the hearing. Many people don’t contest the seizures because of the complexity and cost, so many of the most abusive cases are handled administratively and are never seen by a judge.

“It’s hard to believe this can happen in America,” said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations. “The practice has proven a far greater affront to civil rights than it has been as a weapon against crime.”

Sensenbrenner said a previous effort to overhaul civil forfeiture programs in 2000 (PL 106-185) clearly fell short of its goal, since Justice Department forfeitures increased from $556 million in 1993 to $4 billion in 2012.

“Forfeiture’s only defenders seem to be its beneficiaries, law enforcement agencies entitled to keep the proceeds of their seizures, a conflict of interest so stark that it takes us to another stage,” Sensenbrenner said. “Adequate forfeiture reform is overdue.”

Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., said he would work with Republicans on an overhaul bill this year, and that “it has become increasingly apparent that the procedures are inadequate from the aspect of fundamental fairness.”

Lawmakers floated overhaul provisions during the hearing. Those included ending civil asset forfeiture outright, or at least moving the seized funds to a general fund instead of returning them to the agency that seized them.

Kenneth Blanco, the deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, told the subcommittee that civil asset forfeitures are an important part of fighting crime. Civil forfeiture is the only means by which the government can pursue some cases, such as those of terrorists, fugitives and deceased defendants, and the department has returned billions of dollars to victims, Blanco said.

“By taking criminally-tainted assets out of circulation and off the streets, we intend to break the financial backbone of organized criminal syndicates, terrorists, fraudsters, drug cartels, and use these assets to compensate victims and deter crime,” Blanco said.

Blanco also described the procedural structure around civil asset forfeitures, trying to dispel some myths about the programs.

Late Tuesday, the Justice Department issued more guidance on a new policy, announced in January, to curb the use of a controversial type of civil asset forfeiture.

The new policy ends the practice that allowed state and local police to seize vehicles, valuables, cash and other monetary instruments, and then share the proceeds with federal agencies that “adopt” the seizures.