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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.

The House of Representatives today passed H.R. 647, the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act, by a vote of 404-17. Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) cosponsored and voted in favor of the measure. This bill allows individuals with disabilities to create a new tax-preferred account for short and long-term expenses.

Congressman Sensenbrenner: "As a steadfast advocate for the disabled, my wife Cheryl has long-fought to ensure all Americans with disabilities can lead normal and fulfilling lives. Disabled herself, her resolve inspired me to do everything in my power to help others with disabilities.

“The ABLE Act will expand opportunities for disabled individuals by enabling them to pursue higher education and gainful employment. It will empower them to be self-sufficient and reach their full potential. Cheryl has never let her disability hold her back, and with the passage of this bill, many others with disabilities will be able to do the same.

“I was proud to support this important legislation and urge the Senate to pass it expeditiously.”

“If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan,” President Obama promised. “Your premiums will go down.”

It’s been over four years since the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, was passed into law and in the midst of the second Open Enrollment Period, the President’s promises remain empty. I have heard from many of you in the Fifth District about sharp increases in premiums, drastic decreases in coverage and frustrating encounters with enrollment. A November Gallup survey reveals that only 37 percent of Americans approve of Obamacare at the start of the second enrollment period, while 56 percent disapprove of the law. Under the Affordable Care Act our health care system is nothing short of a disaster and coverage is far from “affordable.”

A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research from September shows that Obamacare has caused insurance premiums to increase for individuals in 45 states, including Wisconsin. The study also reports that in the first half of 2014, premiums went up 24.4 percent more for individuals than they would have without the implementation of the ACA.

Thousands of Americans are being told they must switch doctors and providers to comply with coverage regulations, while hundreds of employers are worried about restricting hiring practices and lowering employees’ hours to comply with the pending employer mandate. As of September 2014, at least 10 employers with over 50 full-time employees in Wisconsin have already cut hours of part-time workers to avoid the 30-hour-per-week threshold that requires them to provide coverage under the employer mandate.

By reducing competition and limiting patient choice, insurance and health care providers have little incentive to lower costs or increase the quality of care under Obamacare. The American people end up paying more and getting less. Additionally, the Obama Administration has added tax hikes to the already expensive program, like the 2.3 percent medical device sales tax, and wasted taxpayer money on the disastrous healthcare.gov roll out.

The results of the election made it clear that the American people don’t approve of the Democrat agenda and are ready for real change.

House Republicans have passed over 20 bills to amend, defund and repeal the ACA since its enactment, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has refused to let the Senate vote on many of them. I hope the President will work with the House and the Senate under Mitch McConnell’s leadership to fix our health care system with sensible reforms that reflect the will of the American people.

Please send a letter to my DC office (2449 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515-4905) or attend one of my Town Hall meetings in Wisconsin to share your experience with Obamacare. Watch for a complete list of meetings on my website (www.sensenbrenner.house.gov) when they begin again in January.

I wish you and your family a Happy Thanksgiving. 

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) introduced the bipartisan USA FREEDOM Act in October, 2013. The House of Representatives passed an amended bill by a vote of 303-121. In July, Chairman Leahy introduced a revised USA FREEDOM Act that reclaimed lost provisions from the original bill and strengthened privacy protections. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) filed for cloture on the measure.

Congressman Sensenbrenner: “The USA FREEDOM Act has been heavily negotiated since Chairman Leahy and I introduced it over a year ago. The bipartisan bill before the Senate has my full support and has been endorsed by an eclectic coalition, ranging from tech giants and privacy advocates to the Administration and Intelligence Community.  There is no excuse not to pass this critical legislation during the lame duck. We have gone to great lengths to ensure our civil liberties are protected without compromising our national security. As the primary author of the Patriot Act, I know the importance of our intelligence gathering authorities, but the law must be used as Congress intended.  It’s time to get this done and restore Americans’ trust in their government.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) introduced the bipartisan USA FREEDOM Act in October, 2013. Last May, the House Judiciary Committee and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence approved an amended version of the legislation unanimously. The House of Representatives then passed a further amended bill by a vote of 303-121.

In July, Chairman Leahy introduced a revised USA FREEDOM Act that reclaimed lost provisions from the original bill and strengthened privacy protections. It is endorsed by the Intelligence Community, the Administration and numerous technology companies and privacy groups.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tonight filed for cloture on the measure. A vote is possible as early as next week.

Congressman Sensenbrenner: “Although far too many good bills continue to collect dust on Senator Reid’s desk, I am pleased he has finally decided to move the USA FREEDOM Act. There is no excuse not to pass this fundamental piece of legislation during the lame duck. Once the Senate acts, I encourage my colleagues in the House and the President to be prepared to promptly enact it into law.  Senator Leahy and I introduced the USA FREEDOM Act over a year ago. It is past time for Washington to ensure Americans’ civil liberties are protected while preserving important intelligence gathering authorities that are vital to our national security.”

Members of the House Judiciary Committee, Congressmen Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), Howard Coble (R-N.C.), Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), Tom Marino (R-Pa.) and Dave Joyce (R-Ohio), today sent the following letter to Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) requesting a mark-up of H.R. 3465, the Second Chance Reauthorization Act:

Dear Chairman Goodlatte:
We write to respectfully request that the House Judiciary Committee schedule a mark-up of the Second Chance Reauthorization Act (H.R. 3465).

As you know, the Over-Criminalization Task Force’s hearings have revealed several problems facing the criminal justice system.  While many of these issues are complex and require novel legislative reforms that may be impracticable to introduce and move this session, the Judiciary Committee can and should use the remaining days left in session to ensure that initiatives with proven outcomes, like Second Chance, continue to protect public safety. 

Since the Second Chance Act was signed into law by President Bush in 2008, over 90,000 men, women, and youth returning home from prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities have benefited from Second Chance grants providing career training, mentoring, family-based substance abuse treatment, and other evidence-based reentry programs. 

This investment has paid off in public safety dividends.  The enclosed reports from the National Reentry Resource Center highlight how numerous states have experienced drastic reductions in statewide recidivism rates as a result of robust reentry services made possible in part through Second Chance.  

The outcomes are impressive, but state and local governments as well as non-profit organizations are in dire need of resources in order to ensure that the millions of individuals returning from prison, jail, and juvenile facilities each year continue to receive coordinated evidence-based reentry services. 

As you know, we have made several improvements to the legislation.  Underutilized or redundant programs have been cut, additional accountability measures have been added for grantees, the authorization level has been reduced from $160 million to $100 million per year, and the types of grants available to community and faith-based non-profits have been expanded.     As a result, we have garnered significant bipartisan support in the House and Senate, and as evidenced in the enclosed letter, nearly 482 law enforcement, faith-based and other community organizations from across the country have endorsed the bill. 
Our constituents understand that successful reentry means safer communities and are eager for Congress to take action to reauthorize this critical program. 

Thank you for your leadership on this Committee and for your commitment to protect public safety through recidivism reduction programs.  We look forward to working with you to advance this vital legislation.

On the eve of Veterans Day, it is important to take time to thank the brave Americans who have risked their lives for our country. Last Thursday I was honored to join President Obama, Congressman Ron Kind (D-Wis.), distinguished guests and family members of Lt. Alonzo Cushing as he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor at the White House.

This award comes 151 years after Lt. Cushing, a native of Delafield, made the ultimate sacrifice to help secure a victory for the Union during the Battle of Gettysburg. Lt. Cushing courageously led 110 men in battle as they faced the numerically superior Confederate forces during Pickett’s Charge in 1863, securing his place in history as a Civil War hero.

Not only does the award honor Lt. Cushing, it also culminates the hard work of Wisconsin residents, including Margaret Zerwekh, a historian from Delafield who initiated the effort, and more than two decades of bipartisan work in Congress. The Medal of Honor is the highest military honor, awarded for acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty. It typically must be awarded within three years of the heroic act. Congressman Kind and I sponsored legislation to waive the three-year limit and allow Lt. Cushing the recognition he deserves.

Lt. Cushing’s Medal of Honor is a testament to the positive work we can do when we reach across the aisle and further proof that the sacrifices made by our veterans are never forgotten.

Full video of White House ceremony, here.


Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times