Bipartisan legislation could halt the federal government’s decades-long practice of seizing billions of dollars from Americans who never face criminal charges.
“The lawless seizure and ‘forfeiture’ of people’s private property by police officers is becoming standard operating procedure in many parts of the country,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat who co-sponsored the bill, said in a statement. “We want to restore the presumption of innocence, fair judicial process, and the opportunity to be heard.”
Raskin and Republican Rep. Tim Walberg reintroduced a bill on March 9 that would overhaul federal civil asset forfeiture laws, which allow the government to seize and sometimes keep property from citizens who, in many instances, have never been charged with a crime. If passed, the legislation would force agencies to make a case for seizure to a judge, remove financial incentives around forfeiture and raise the level of proof needed to allow for seizures.
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“Seizing property and handing it over to the government without proof of wrongdoing is fundamentally un-American,” Rep. Tony Cárdenas, another Democrat who co-sponsored the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act, said in a statement. “In the United States, we are innocent until proven guilty, and the government may not seize our property without just cause.”
“It’s past time to reform our civil asset forfeiture system and make it fairer for the American people,” he added.
The FAIR Act would eliminate administrative forfeiture, which allows federal agencies to seize property without a judge’s approval. Once seized, if the owner fails to file a claim quickly enough to request the return of their property, the agency can keep all the proceeds from their forfeited property.
Earlier this month, Los Angeles resident Linda Martin filed a class-action lawsuit against the FBI after her life savings were seized along with $86 million worth of other Americans’ property in a 2021 raid of a safe deposit box company. Despite never being suspected of, charged with or convicted of a crime, Martin has received no indication if her money will ever be returned.
“I felt misled. I felt angry,” Martin previously told Fox News. “I’m advocating for just not myself, but for everyone, because there’s a lot of people that don’t know what to do.”
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An Institute for Justice report found that 78% of all forfeiture cases processed by the Department of Justice between 2000 and 2019 were administrative, meaning agencies decided to seize property with no judicial oversight. Similarly, 96% of the Treasury Department’s forfeiture cases were administrative, according to the 2020 report.
Using federal forfeiture records, the Institute for Justice calculated that since 2000 the DOJ and the Treasury Department have taken in over $50 billion in total forfeiture revenue.
“Civil asset forfeiture is a key tool that helps law enforcement defund organized crime, take back ill-gotten gains, and prevent new crimes from being committed, and it weakens the criminals and the cartels,” then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in 2017. “Civil asset forfeiture takes the material support of the criminals and instead makes it the material support of law enforcement.”
The primary goal of forfeiture, according to the DOJ’s asset forfeiture policy manual, the primary goal of forfeiture is “to punish and deter criminal activity by depriving criminals of property used in or acquired through illegal activities.”
But Walberg believes reform is necessary.
“It’s been far too easy for the government to seize a private citizen’s property,” he said. “The FAIR Act brings important reforms to limit government overreach and restores constitutional rights.”
In addition to requiring judges to hear forfeiture cases, the bill places the burden of proof on the federal government, requiring “clear and convincing evidence” that seized property was linked to criminal activity. It also guarantees legal representation for those fighting to reclaim their assets.
The FAIR Act would eliminate the financial incentives around forfeiture cases by depositing any proceeds to the general fund of the Treasury, rather than back to the seizing agency.
The FAIR act was previously introduced to the House in 2021 but failed to reach a floor vote. It’s also been introduced in the Senate twice since 2014, where it also hasn’t received a floor vote.
“Protecting Americans’ property rights isn’t a partisan issue, and we’re glad to see lawmakers from across the aisle working together to pass true reforms,” Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Dan Alban said in a press release.
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