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By Jim Sensenbrenner

?Published on February 10, 2015


It's hard to believe this can happen in America. The government is seizing billions of dollars of cash and property from Americans, often without charging them with a crime. Worse, the law enforcement agencies that seize the cash are usually entitled to keep it.

If these individuals were found guilty of crimes and this money was its fruit, my only response would be applause. But forfeitures need not be predicated on crimes.

Recent reports highlighted the story of Mandrel Stuart, who was pulled over because he had tinted windows and a TV in his line-of-sight. Stuart owned a barbecue joint — the Smoking Roosters — and was carrying cash for supplies. Police seized $17,550 in cash, but never filed charges.

After a lengthy process, Stuart's money was returned, and a court ordered the government to pay his $11,825.40 in legal fees. And while this is the exception, not the rule, it still came at a cost. Stuart lost his business, and taxpayers footed the bill.

With origins in medieval law, civil asset forfeiture is premised on the legal fiction that inanimate objects bear moral culpability when used for wrongdoing. The practice regained prominence as a weapon in the modern drug wars as law enforcement sought to disrupt criminal organizations by seizing the cash that sustains them. It has, however, proven a greater affront to civil rights than it has a weapon against crime.

Our justice system makes it too easy for law enforcement to seize and ultimately forfeit property and too hard for innocent owners to get it back. And it gives law enforcement a direct financial incentive to exploit these weak procedures.

Last month, Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) and U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and I sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder to express our "concerns that the government is not using the process fairly and instead is infringing on the rights of small business owners and motorists," and that "seizures might circumvent state forfeiture law restrictions, create improper incentives on the part of state and local law enforcement, and unnecessarily burden our federal authorities." We encouraged the attorney general "to consider discontinuing 'adoptive seizures' and 'equitable sharing'" and "implement additional procedural safeguards."

In response, Holder took an important first step, and suspended federal adoption of state and local seizures. Federal adoption allowed police to ignore restrictions in state law by working with the federal government. Under the equitable sharing program, DOJ returned up to 80% of forfeited money to the state agencies. A 2011 study found that police were, in fact, more likely to rely on federal equitable sharing in states where the law made forfeitures more difficult or less rewarding.

While the announcement by Holder is commendable, there are notable loopholes.

The new policy does not apply to joint task forces, which could exempt a large number of seizures.

It also doesn't curtail "seizures pursuant to federal seizure warrants," so law enforcement can avoid the policy by convincing a judge to issue a seizure warrant. The policy is therefore only as robust as the judges who review the seizures demand.

DOJ's new policy will result in fewer unfair forfeitures. How many fewer? We'll have to wait and see, but the problem is far from solved. Congress must enact permanent, comprehensive forfeiture reform to protect property rights.

The Founders understood the virtues of limited government. The right to own property is enshrined in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution: "(No person shall) be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law."

Current forfeiture provisions mock the spirit and meaning of that passage and create serious issues under several other Constitutional provisions. It's no wonder my former colleague Henry Hyde described civil asset forfeiture as an "unrelenting government assault on property rights, fueled by a dangerous and emotional vigilante mentality that sanctions shredding the U.S. Constitution into meaningless confetti."

Hyde led an effort that culminated in passage of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act. It was a noble effort, but it plainly fell short. In advancing CAFRA, Hyde noted that in 1993 the Department of Justice forfeited $556 million and U.S. customs had seized property valued in excess of $611 million. Post-CAFRA, in 2012, DOJ alone seized $4 billion.

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 it takes us to another age. Adequate forfeiture reform is long overdue.

To be clear, the failure is not on our police who bravely enforce the laws we write. Congress has failed to craft adequate laws, and DOJ has failed to implement policies that fully protect Constitutional rights.

As a former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, I am fully aware of how broken our criminal justice system is. I spent the last year leading a task force on over-criminalization. Our jails are over-crowded, our criminal code is convoluted and federal regulations are outdated and cumbersome. I intend to introduce a package of legislation to address these and other concerns. Reforming our forfeiture laws will be a chief priority.

The Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations Subcommittee, which I chair, is holding its first hearing on asset forfeiture this week to determine what reforms will best prevent abuse.

I have no illusions about how difficult a fight this will be, but our Constitutional rights are worth fighting for.

 

Bipartisan lawmakers today reintroduced the Secure Data Act to protect Americans’ privacy and data security by prohibiting surveillance agencies from requiring or compelling surveillance “backdoors” in products and services.
 
A similar amendment to the Department of Defense Appropriations Act last year passed the House of Representatives by an overwhelming 293-123 vote. This amendment was not included in the CRomnibus.
 
U.S. Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R- Wis.), Thomas Massie (R- Ky.), and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), sponsors of the Secure Data Act of 2015, issued the following statement:
 
“Congress has allowed the Administration’s surveillance authorities to go unchecked by failing to enact adequate reform. Last Congress, the Massie-Sensenbrenner-Lofgren amendment garnered support from an overwhelming bi-partisan majority in the House as a provision to the Defense Appropriations bill, but unfortunately, was not included in the CRomnibus. With threats to our homeland ever prevalent, we should not tie the hands of the intelligence community.  But unwarranted, backdoor surveillance is indefensible. The Secure Data Act is an important step in rebuilding public trust in our intelligence agencies and striking the appropriate balance between national security and civil liberty.”
 
It has been widely reported that US intelligence and law enforcement agencies have requested or required individuals and organizations build a “backdoor” into their product or service to assist in unwarranted electronic surveillance.
 
However, on more than one occurrence, major security flaws have been found in these “backdoors” that put the data security of every person and business using the internet at risk. For example, a software testing firm found serious backdoor vulnerabilities in wiretapping software for law enforcement made by Israeli software firm NICE Systems in 2013 that allowed hackers to completely compromise their system and listen to intercepted phone calls. If a backdoor is created for law enforcement and intelligence surveillance, past experience has shown it’s only a matter of time before hackers exploit it too.
 
These "backdoors" can also be detrimental to American jobs. Other countries buy less American hardware and software and favor their domestic suppliers in order to avoid compromised American products.
 
The Secure Data Act fixes this by prohibiting any agency from requesting or compelling backdoors in services and products to assist with electronic surveillance.

Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) sent the following letter to Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Commissioner John Koskinen in response to complaints from a large number of constituents struggling to file their taxes as a result of shortcomings by the IRS.

Dear Commissioner Koskinen:

I am writing about an important matter that has been brought to my attention by taxpayers in the 5th District.

Recently, I have heard from my constituents that are having difficulties upholding their civic duty to pay their federal taxes.  The problem they have identified stems from an apparent recent Internal Revenue Service (IRS) policy change to no longer supply hard copies of IRS forms and instructions in a reasonable way.  If a taxpayer does not have internet access, and therefore will file a paper return, the taxpayer must call a toll free number to request that the form(s) be sent via US Postal Service; or, must visit a local library to access the IRS website, download and print the form (numbers of print copies of tax products IRS previously sent to libraries and post offices have been dramatically reduced); or hire a tax professional to file their return.  In addition to great inconvenience, these options are costly to taxpayers. 

In fact, IRS Publication 17, Your Federal Income Tax, the booklet containing instructions important to many taxpayers as they prepare their returns, is not available in print from the IRS.  Instead, it must be ordered through the Government Printing Office for a cost of $23.00.  To make matters worse, many who have tried to order forms through the IRS form hotline cannot get through, nor can they reach anyone on the general tax advice hotline.  This severely hinders them from receiving important tax law advice to ensure their returns comport with IRS issued rules and current tax law.

I am inquiring as to what steps are being taken to remedy this problem and ensure all taxpayers are given a fair chance to fully understand the law.  In its mission statement, the IRS acknowledges that it exists to “provide America’s taxpayers top quality service by helping them understand and meet their tax responsibilities and enforce the law with integrity and fairness to all.”  At this point, it appears the IRS is falling woefully short of its own stated objectives. To say the least, these reports are concerning and raise questions about whether the IRS is taking this situation seriously or playing politics with budget cuts.

While I realize that many federal agencies, including the IRS, have experienced reduced funding levels, we owe it to taxpayers to assist them in fulfilling their obligation to file their taxes correctly on time.

Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) tonight gave the below statement following President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.

Congressman Sensenbrenner:  “The White House warned that President Obama was going to give a ‘defiant’ speech, and that’s what he did.   In November, the American people spoke loud and clear, in what was nothing short of a land-slide election. But instead of attempting to reach across the aisle and work with Republicans, the President dug in his heels—laying the groundwork for a Do-Nothing White House. This is a real shame.”

Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-Menomonee Falls) announced today that sixteen students from Wisconsin’s Fifth Congressional District have received nominations to the US Service Academies. 

“I continue to be impressed with the caliber of area students who apply through my office for a service academy nomination,” Sensenbrenner said.  “These young men and women have established strong records as leaders in their communities in addition to excelling academically and athletically.  I congratulate all of the nominees and wish them the best of luck on all their future endeavors.”

Nominees for the United States Service Academies were chosen from an impressive group of qualified applicants residing throughout Wisconsin’s Fifth Congressional District.  The Congressman’s Academy Selection Committee put forth its recommendations for nomination after reviewing each individual candidate and conducting in-person interviews. 

Of the sixteen students, three have been named principal nominees.  If a principal nominee meets the academic, physical, and medical standards set by the academy, they are assured an offer of appointment to the academy.  If a principal nominee does not qualify or chooses not to attend, the alternates compete for the vacancy.  Alternates are also part of a pool of applicants from which the academies will select the incoming class.

Principal Nominees:

Andrew Kitzhaber of Watertown has been named a principal nominee to attend the US Military Academy in West Point, NY.  Andrew, son of Peter and Michelle Kitzhaber, is a senior at Watertown High School. 

Julia Miller of Waukesha has been named a principal nominee to attend the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD.  She has also been nominated to attend the US Military Academy in West Point, NY; the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO; and the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, NY.  Julia, daughter of Brent and Elizabeth Miller, is a senior at Brookfield Academy.

Avery Preston of Hartland has been named a principal nominee to attend the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO.  Avery, daughter of Eric and Michelle Preston, is a senior at Arrowhead High School. 

Competing Alternate Nominees from Jefferson County:

James Nachtigal of Fort Atkinson has been nominated to attend the US Military Academy in West Point, NY.  James, son of Terry and Julie Nachtigal, is currently attending the United States Military Academy Preparatory School in West Point, NY. 

Michael Resnick of Cambridge has been nominated to attend the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO.  Michael, son of Gary and Jennifer Resnick, is a senior at Cambridge High School. 

Competing Alternate Nominee from Milwaukee County:

Colton Gingrass of Wauwatosa has been nominated to attend the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD, as well as the US Military Academy in West Point, NY.  Colton, son of Charles and Kimberly Gingrass, is a senior at Marquette University High School.

Competing Alternate Nominees from Washington County:

Curtis Peters of Hartford has been nominated to attend the US Military Academy in West Point, NY as well as the US Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, NY.  Curtis, son of Jason and Erin Peters, is a senior at Hartford Union High School. 

McKenzie Rosenthal of Kewaskum has been nominated to attend the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO.  McKenzie, daughter of Scott and Cammie Rosenthal, is a senior at Kewaskum High School. 

Competing Alternate Nominees from Waukesha County:

Maria Carter of Oconomowoc has been nominated to attend the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO.  Maria, daughter of Paul and Angelique Carter, is currently attending the Greystone Preparatory School at Schreiner University in Kerrville, TX. 

Naomi Dawood of Brookfield has been nominated to attend the US Military Academy in West Point, NY; the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD; the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO; and the US Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, NY.  Naomi, daughter of Mohammed and Karryn Dawood, is a senior at Brookfield Central High School. 

Daniel Lee of Brookfield has been nominated to attend the US Military Academy in West Point, NY, as well as the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD.  Daniel, son of Ernie and Robyn Lee, is a senior at Brookfield Central High School.

Emily Lowerr of Brookfield has been nominated to attend the US Military Academy in West Point, NY; the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD; the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO; and the US Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, NY.  Emily, daughter of Briane and Renee Lowerr, is a senior at Brookfield Central High School. 

Christian McMiller of Waukesha has been nominated to attend the US Military Academy in West Point, NY, as well as the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD.  Christian, son of James and Roberta McMiller, is a senior at Arrowhead High School.

Nicholas Patnode of Oconomowoc has been nominated to attend the US Military Academy in West Point, NY, as well as the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD.  Nicholas, son of Donald and Ann Marie Patnode, is a senior at Kettle Moraine High School.  

Benjamin Peterson of Brookfield has been nominated to attend the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO.  Benjamin, son of Dean and Lori Peterson, is a senior at Brookfield Central High School. 

Lukas Texeira of Waukesha has been nominated to attend the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO.  Lukas, son of David and Lisa Texeira, is a senior at Waukesha West High School.  

Congressman Sensenbrenner is currently accepting nomination applications from Wisconsin’s Fifth Congressional District for those who would like to enter any United States Service Academy in the summer of 2016.  Inquiries concerning this process can be made to the Congressman’s District Office in Brookfield at (262) 784-1111, or online at www.sensenbrenner.house.gov.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Friday barred local and state police from using federal law to seize cash, cars and other property without evidence that a crime occurred.

Holder’s action represents the most sweeping check on police power to confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades ago as part of the war on drugs.

Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under a civil asset forfeiture program at the Justice Department called Equitable Sharing.

The program has enabled local and state police to make seizures and then have them “adopted” by federal agencies, which share in the proceeds. The program allowed police departments and drug task forces to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds of the adopted seizures, with the rest going to federal agencies.

“With this new policy, effective immediately, the Justice Department is taking an important step to prohibit federal agency adoptions of state and local seizures, except for public safety reasons,” Holder said in a statement.

Holder’s decision allows some limited exceptions, including illegal firearms, ammunition, explosives and property associated with child pornography, a small fraction of the total. This would eliminate virtually all cash and vehicle seizures made by local and state police from the program.

While police can continue to make seizures under their own state laws, the federal program was easy to use and required most of the proceeds from the seizures to go to local and state police departments. Many states require seized proceeds to go into the general fund.

A Justice official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the attorney general’s motivation, said Holder “also believes that the new policy will eliminate any possibility that the adoption process might unintentionally incentivize unnecessary stops and seizures.”

Holder’s decision follows a Washington Post investigation published in September that found that police have made cash seizures worth almost $2.5 billion from motorists and others without search warrants or indictments since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Post found that local and state police routinely pulled over drivers for minor traffic infractions, pressed them to agree to warrantless searches and seized large amounts of cash without evidence of wrongdoing. The law allows such seizures and forces the owners to prove their property was legally acquired in order to get it back.

Police spent the seizure proceeds with little oversight, in some cases buying luxury cars, high-powered weapons and military-grade gear such as armored cars, according to an analysis of Justice Department data obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.

News of Holder’s decision stunned advocates who have for a long time unsuccessfully sought to reverse civil asset forfeiture laws, arguing that they undermine core American values, such as property rights and due process.

“It’s high time we put an end to this damaging practice,” said David Harris, a constitutional law scholar at the University of Pittsburgh. “It has been a civil-liberties debacle and a stain on American criminal justice.”

Holder’s action comes as members of both parties in Congress are working together to craft legislation to overhaul civil asset forfeiture. Last Friday, Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), along with Reps. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) and John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), signed a letter calling on Holder to end Equitable Sharing.

Grassley praised Holder’s decision on Friday.

“We’re going to have a fairer justice system because of it,” Grassley said. “The rule of law ought to protect innocent people, and civil asset forfeiture hurt a lot of people.”

He said he planned to continue pressing for legislative reforms.

“I commend the department for this step and look forward to working with them on comprehensive forfeiture reform that protects Americans’ property rights,” Sensenbrenner said. “Equitable sharing has become a tool too often used to bypass state law. Forfeitures should be targeted and must have appropriate procedural protections.”

The new policy could become one of the more notable pieces of Holder’s legacy. Holder has already announced he is leaving the department, and it is clear that he is takings steps to burnish his place in history. On Thursday, he pushed in a speech for better tracking of police use-of-force incidents.

But Friday’s action is sure to engender its share of controversy.

The policy will touch policing and local budgets in every state. Since 2001, about 7,600 of the nation’s 18,000 police departments and task forces have participated in Equitable Sharing. For hundreds of police departments and sheriff’s offices, the seizure proceeds accounted for 20 percent or more of their annual budgets in recent years.

The action comes at a time when police are already angry about remarks that Holder and President Obama made after the controversial police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City. Some have accused them of being “anti-cop.”

“It seems like a continual barrage against police,” said John W. Thompson, interim executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association. “I’m not saying there’s no wrongdoing, but there is wrongdoing in everything.”

Critics of the decision say that depriving departments of the proceeds from civil asset forfeitures will hurt legitimate efforts to fight crime, drug smuggling and terrorism.

Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, said, “There is some grave concern about the possible loss of significant funding while local police and state police are being asked to do more and more each year.”

Over the past decade, thousands of people have had to fight the government to get their cash and property back, often hiring lawyers and spending more than a year in the process. Many of them were people of color and immigrants swept up in police dragnets on the nation’s highways aimed at stopping drug dealers, money launderers and terrorists.

That includes people such as Mandrel Stuart, who was stopped in 2012 by Fairfax County police, detained without charges, handcuffed and stripped of $17,550 in cash that was to be used for equipment and supplies for his barbecue restaurant in Staunton, Va. He eventually hired a lawyer, and a jury gave him his money back in 2013. But he lost his restaurant while fighting the government, because he had no working capital.

“A lot people won’t be harassed the way they are harassing them now,” Stuart said Friday after he heard about Holder’s action. “It’s some justice at last on our side.”

Civil asset forfeiture is one of the most powerful — and unusual — law enforcement tools. Police do not need evidence of a crime to use it, because it is a civil action against an object, such as currency or a car, rather than a person.

As a consequence, protections common in criminal law do not apply. In fact, the burden is on owners who want to recover their cash or property to prove it is not tied to crime.

Forfeiture has its basis in British admiralty law, but it became a part of the fight against drugs in the United States beginning in 1970, when Congress allowed police to seize aircraft, boats and other property used to transport narcotics or bought by drug lords with ill-gotten gains.

In the 1980s, the law was expanded to include cash. About the same time, the Justice Department created its Asset Forfeiture Program and began allowing federal agencies to adopt seizures made by state and local authorities. Those changes led to a massive increase in money deposited into the federal forfeitures fund as seizures by local and state police surged. Allegations of police abuses also increased.

Searing reports by the Orlando Sentinel and other newspapers about abuses spurred Congress to pass the Civil Asset Reform Act in 2000. But a key change — ending the sharing of seizure proceeds between local police and federal agencies — was cut from the bill after fierce opposition from police and prosecutors. Some lawmakers called the sharing of money a “perverse incentive” for overly aggressive police tactics.

After 9/11, the use of the asset forfeiture law and the Equitable Sharing program rose to new heights as federal authorities called on local, county and state police to help keep watch on the nation’s highways, not only for drug smugglers but also for terrorists.

The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security paid private firms millions to train local and state officers in the techniques of an aggressive brand of policing known as “highway interdiction.” That training, developed by the firms, included methods for ferreting out suspicious drivers and coaxing them into granting warrantless searches of vehicles, according to internal company training documents obtained by The Post. The documents emphasized the importance of targeting cash.

Departments that had once focused on seizing drugs changed their focus to money in recent years, some officers said. “Over a period of a single decade, the culture was now totally changed,” said Shawn Pardazi, a Mississippi police detective who teaches highway interdiction.

The federal government also encouraged police to collect and share intelligence about drivers, even those who had done nothing wrong. The training firm Desert Snow started a private intelligence system called Black Asphalt that enabled police to share tips about drivers across state lines and funnel raw reports about drivers to federal authorities, including those at the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Civil asset forfeiture has become one of the few public policy and social issues that united activists and lawmakers across the political spectrum, some of whom dubbed the system “policing for profit.”

After The Post series, John Yoder and Brad Cates, two directors of the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture office under President Ronald Reagan, said the program should end. In an opinion piece, they said the program began with good intentions to fight the “profit motive” that fueled drug cartels and other criminals. “Over time, however, the tactic has turned into an evil itself, with the corruption it engendered among government and law enforcement coming to clearly outweigh any benefits.”

The Institute for Justice and other libertarian-leaning groups teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union and left-leaning groups to press for changes in the wake of the Post investigation.

“This is a profoundly important and path-breaking change in the ability of the government to take property of Americans,” said Scott Bullock, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, which produced a study about civil asset forfeiture five years ago called “Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture.”

In recent months, Grassley, the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the panel’s ranking Democrat, joined the effort, along with Sensenbrenner and others.

“I am deeply troubled by the well-documented reports of innocent Americans swept up through the misuse of civil asset forfeiture laws,” Leahy said in a statement to The Post. “This program was designed to be a crime-fighting tool, not just a fundraising tool. I look forward to working with Senator Grassley to impose some much-needed oversight and accountability into this area.”

Holder said Equitable Sharing seizure adoptions will continue to be employed by local and federal authorities, but only in limited circumstances when public safety is at risk and where local and federal authorities are collaborating in cases clearly involving criminal activity.

The public safety exceptions include seizures of weapons and other dangerous items, and property related to child pornography, which have accounted for only a tenth of 1 percent of the total seizures since 2008, a Post analysis found.

Joint federal and local investigations accounted for just 9 percent of all seizures but 43 percent of the value of all seizures. Local and state seizures without federal participation amounted to 57 percent of the dollar value of the seized items under Equitable Sharing since 2008 — $3 billion out of $5.3 billon, according to Post research.

In announcing the new Justice Department policy Friday, Holder said there is also less need for the Equitable Sharing program. In the 1980s, when sharing policies took effect, few states gave police the authority to make civil seizures and forfeit the assets of criminals in the way that federal law allowed.

“Today, however, every state has either criminal or civil forfeiture laws, making the federal adoption process less necessary,” Holder’s statement said. “Indeed, adoptions currently constitute a very small slice of the federal asset forfeiture program. Over the last six years, adoptions accounted for roughly three percent of the value of forfeitures in the Department of Justice Asset Forfeiture Program.”

Some police departments have shown an apparent preference for federal law over state laws. Equitable Sharing required the seizure proceeds to go back to the departments, while state asset forfeiture programs can mandate that the money go into the state’s general fund.

The federal agencies that have historically adopted the seizures, such as the DEA and ICE, stand to lose a considerable amount from the change in policy. Federal agencies have taken in $800 million from the program in cash alone without warrants or arrests since 2001.

The Treasury Department is also changing its asset forfeiture program to follow the same guideline included in Holder’s order, the statement said.

Federal agencies make larger seizures of cash and property through avenues other than Equitable Sharing, typically in cases involving defendants ranging from drug cartel kingpins to Bernie Madoff, whose fraud case has resulted in more than $9 billion in forfeitures in recent years.

Those programs are not affected by the changes to Equitable Sharing, but Holder also said the new policy is the first step in a “comprehensive review” of civil forfeiture in general.

Justice Department officials noted that civil asset forfeiture has hurt criminals and their organizations. It also has enabled the government to refund money to crime victims — about $4 billion over the past 15 years.

“Asset forfeiture remains a critical law enforcement tool when used appropriately — providing unique means to go after criminal and even terrorist organizations,” Holder said. “This new policy will ensure that these authorities can continue to be used to take the profit out of crime and return assets to victims, while safeguarding civil liberties.”

View online, here.
Leaders of the House and Senate Judiciary committees on Friday called on the Justice Department to end the sharing of civil seizure proceeds with local and state police, a change that with few exceptions would cut the flow of hundreds of million of dollars annually to departments in every state.

In a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the lawmakers said they think money from Justice’s Equitable Sharing Program, the federal government’s largest civil asset forfeiture initiative, may be encouraging heavy-handed tactics by local and state police agencies.

Equitable Sharing allows police who seize property under federal civil law to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds, while Justice and other participating federal agencies can keep 20 percent or more. In 2012, the most recent year of complete data available to The Washington Post, seizures worth more than $1.5 billion in cash, cars and other property were processed through the program.

“We are concerned that these seizures might circumvent state forfeiture law restrictions, create improper incentives on the part of state and local law enforcement, and unnecessarily burden our federal authorities,” the letter said.

The letter was signed by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism, homeland security and investigations; Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.); and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).

Their call for change comes as Justice is conducting “an internal, top-to-bottom review of its entire asset forfeiture program,” the letter said. That review, which has been ongoing for months, is aimed at improving civil liberties protections of Americans, while also enabling the use of civil seizures to fight crime and terror.

“Over the past year, we have been engaged in a comprehensive review of the Asset Forfeiture Program, including consideration of changes to the adoption policy, as well as other aspects of the program,” Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said in a statement. “The purpose of this ongoing review is to ensure that the department uses federal asset forfeiture authorities carefully and effectively.”

That effort follows a Washington Post investigation in September that found that nearly 62,000 cash seizures worth more than $2.5 billion have been made through Equitable Sharing since Sept. 11, 2001, without search warrants or indictments. The departments of Justice and Homeland Security received $800 million of that total, while thousands of local and state agencies kept the rest.

Sensenbrenner launched an investigation of federal civil asset forfeiture. Sensenbrenner, Grassley, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and others have begun crafting legislation that would overhaul civil asset forfeiture laws.

In the letter sent to Justice on Friday, the lawmakers said that civil seizures can be “a valuable tool in combatting serious wrongdoing. However, we have concerns that the government is not using the process fairly and instead is infringing on the rights of small business owners and motorists.”

They urged Holder to discontinue the “adoption” of local seizures, the process by which authorities at the Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other agencies sanction seizures by local police under the federal law. After adoption, the seizures are then processed through the Equitable Sharing Program.

“We also recommend that you implement additional procedural safeguards to make sure the property of innocent Americans is not being swept up in overzealous asset forfeiture,” the letter said.

Grassley said that many federal programs and laws “are broad and often abstract to everyday life, but the Civil Asset Forfeiture Program can directly impact Americans in very serious ways.”

“The law is flawed and in dire need of reform,” Sensenbrenner said in a statement. “I’m committed to working in Congress to better protect Americans’ constitutional right to be secure in their property and possessions.”

View online, here.
Congressmen Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) today sent the following letter to Attorney General Holder regarding civil asset forfeiture, specifically “adoptive seizures” and “equitable sharing.”

Dear Attorney General Holder:

We are members of a bicameral, bipartisan group of lawmakers who share a strong interest in civil asset forfeiture reform.  We believe that in many circumstances, civil asset forfeiture is a valuable tool in combating serious wrongdoing.  However, we have concerns that the government is not using the process fairly and instead is infringing on the rights of small business owners and motorists, some of whom are our constituents.  

One area that we find particularly problematic involves “adoptive seizures” and “equitable sharing.”  Under this arrangement, state and local law enforcement agencies bring property seized under state law to a federal seizing agency for federal forfeiture and then can receive up to 80% of the proceeds of the resulting forfeiture.  We are concerned that these seizures might circumvent state forfeiture law restrictions, create improper incentives on the part of state and local law enforcement, and unnecessarily burden our federal authorities.  

In a recent meeting with representatives of the Department of Justice, we were told that the Department is in the midst of an internal, top-to-bottom review of its entire asset forfeiture program.  As part of this review, we encourage you to consider discontinuing “adoptive seizures” and “equitable sharing.”  

Nothing in the statutes governing forfeiture requires that you engage in equitable sharing.  For instance, 21 U.S.C. § 881(e)(1)(A) provides that “[w]henever property is civilly or criminally forfeited under this subchapter the Attorney General may … transfer the property … to any State or local law enforcement agency which participated directly in the seizure or forfeiture of the property” (emphasis supplied).  Similarly, under 18 U.S.C. § 981(e)(2), “the Attorney General, the Secretary of the Treasury, or the Postal Service, as the case may be, is authorized to retain property forfeited pursuant to this section, or to transfer such property on such terms and conditions as he may determine to … any State or local law enforcement agency which participated directly in any of the acts which led to the seizure or forfeiture of the property” (emphasis supplied).  Since the Reagan Administration issued “Guidelines on Seized Forfeited Property” as part of the United States Attorneys Manual in 1985, the Department of Justice has issued guidelines governing these practices.  See also U.S. Department of Justice, “Guide to Equitable Sharing for State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies” (2009).

We also recommend that you implement additional procedural safeguards to make sure the property of innocent Americans is not being swept up in overzealous asset forfeiture.
A group of bipartisan lawmakers introduced H.R. 5800, the Secure Data Act of 2014, to protect Americans’ privacy and data security by prohibiting surveillance agencies from requiring or compelling surveillance “backdoors” in products and services. A similar amendment to the Department of Defense Appropriations Act this year passed the House of Representatives by an overwhelming 293-123 vote, but it was not included in the Continuing Resolution (CR)/omnibus spending legislation.

U.S. Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R- Wis.), Thomas Massie (R- Ky.), and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), sponsors of the Secure Data Act of 2014, issued the following statement:
 
“Thus far, Congress has failed to rein in the Administration’s surveillance authorities and protect Americans’ civil liberties. Nevertheless, the Massie-Sensenbrenner-Lofgren amendment established an important record in the full House of Representatives—an overwhelming majority will no longer tolerate the status quo. Unwarranted and backdoor surveillance is untenable, and as Congress turns to address a multitude of expiring surveillance programs in the 114th Congress, the House will not allow unwarranted surveillance without meaningful reform. The Secure Data Act defends Americans’ constitutional rights and is an important next step in closing backdoor surveillance and rebuilding public trust in our intelligence agencies.”
 
Original cosponsors of the Secure Data Act of 2014 include Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.), Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), Rush Holt (D- N.J.), Jerrold Nadler (D- N.Y.), Beto O’Rourke (D- Texas), Ted Poe (R- Texas).

With increasing numbers of Americans falling victim to drug addiction and overdoses from heroin and opiates, U.S. Congressmen Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), Bobby Scott (D-Va.), Tom Marino (R-Pa.), Karen Bass (D-Calif.), David Joyce (R-Ohio) and Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) today introduced bipartisan legislation that could help turn the tide in the struggle against this epidemic. 

The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) of 2014 would provide a series of incentives and resources designed to encourage states and local communities to advance a continuum of proven strategies to combat addiction.  Among other things, the bill would expand prevention and education efforts to prevent the abuse of opioids and heroin and promote treatment and recovery. It would also strengthen prescription drug monitoring programs to help states monitor and track prescription drug diversion.

 Congressman Sensenbrenner: “Too many Wisconsinites are falling into the addiction trap. With a 350 percent increase in collected heroin samples reported by the State Crime Laboratory and growing alarm within Wisconsin’s law enforcement community, this is a very real problem that we cannot ignore. It must be addressed effectively and expeditiously. With this legislation, we have an opportunity to build on proven methods that enable law enforcement to respond to this epidemic and support long-term recovery by connecting prevention and education efforts with treatment programs.”

Congressman Scott: “I am deeply concerned with the growth of heroin and prescription painkiller addiction across the nation. Something must be done at the federal level to address this issue and I believe the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act is the answer. This legislation would look at the problem from all angles – from prevention efforts to overdose medication and recovery – in order to stem this epidemic which is taking the lives of 114 people per day.”

This bill is the companion to the Senate’s Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, S. 2839, introduced in September 2014 by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Pat Leahy (D-Vt.).

The legislation is supported by 93 organizations, including the National District Attorneys Association, the National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors (NASADAD), Faces and Voices of Recovery, the National Council for Behavioral Health, and the Major County Sheriffs’ Association, among others.