Senate Holds First Hearing on Civil Forfeiture Reform
The Senate took a first step toward drafting its own civil asset forfeiture reform legislation at a subcommittee hearing Wednesday (7/21).
The Senate subcommittee which oversees criminal justice matters held a hearing born out of the 375-48 passage of Rep. Henry Hyde's (R-IL) Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act in the House. The subcommittee members expressed interest in passing some kind of civil asset forfeiture reform legislation, but it remains unclear how similar that legislation would be to Hyde's bill.
"The Civil Asset Forfeiture Act would provide greater safeguards for individuals whose property has been seized by the government," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the member of the subcommittee most enthusiastic about reform. "This bipartisan legislation passed the House of Representatives last month by an overwhelming majority and it deserves our prompt consideration."
Most other senators on the panel agreed that some reform of federal forfeiture law was necessary, but they weren't sure how far to go. Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC), who chairs the subcommittee, said he didn't like the Hyde bill and was concerned about a provision that would provide indigent property owners with counsel. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), the ranking minority member, spoke passionately against Hyde's bill, as did former federal prosecutor Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL).
"I hope we don't overcorrect for a problem that doesn't exist," Sessions said. "I think this needs some tinkering with, but does not need a major overhaul."
Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE), who spoke against H.R. 1658 in his opening remarks, came around to favoring some reforms during one of the question-and-answer sessions. Biden induced representatives from the Department of Justice and other federal law enforcement agencies to unanimously agree on the need for reform in the areas of the burden of and standard of proof, providing compensation for damage done to seized property by federal agents, and the allowing of interest charges. Biden and the panel also found limited agreement on the need to eliminate the 10% bond people must post to get their property back, and on the appointment of counsel for indigent property owners.
No Senate hearings on the issue are scheduled at this time, but it seems likely the subcommittee will revisit the topic again during the 106th Congress.