(press release from the Drug Policy Foundation, http://www.dpf.org)
WASHINGTON, June 15 -- The Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 1999, a bill sponsored by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) and 57 cosponsors, passed the House Judiciary Committee by a 27-3 vote this morning.
"With the passage of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act, the House Judiciary Committee has taken an important first step to restoring Americans' property rights," said DPF Senior Policy Analyst Scott Ehlers. "If this legislation is passed into law, Americans will be better protected from one of the worst abuses of police power."
The bill's smooth, bipartisan passage out of committee should bode well for it on the floor of the House. Because H.R. 1658 has such a broad array of cosponsors, from conservatives such as J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ), to liberals such as Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), it stands a very good chance of passing the House.
One reason H.R. 1658 has attracted so much support is that conservatives and liberals have noted that police use civil asset forfeiture disproportionately against minorities. A 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning piece in the Pittsburgh Press found that a grossly disproportionate number of forfeitures were carried out against minorities. Subsequent investigations into forfeitures in other states, such as Florida, have found the same results.
"I consider this literally a civil rights bill of great magnitude," Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) said during the committee's meeting.
Under the guise of fighting the war on drugs, law enforcement officers can seize your home, car, or money without ever charging you with a crime. Known as civil asset forfeiture (CAF), it is one of the most abused police powers in America today.
Civil asset forfeiture is based on the legal fiction that the property that facilitates or is connected with a crime is itself guilty and can be seized and tried in civil court (e.g., United States v. One 1974 Cadillac Eldorado Sedan). Under CAF law, the government can take a person's property on the basis of "probable cause," which is the same minimal standard required for police to obtain a search warrant. In order to get the property returned, an owner must prove by a "preponderance of the evidence" -- a higher standard of proof -- that his/her property was not used to facilitate a crime.
Whereas under criminal law the defendant is innocent until proved guilty, in CAF proceedings the property is presumed guilty by the police, and the owner has to prove otherwise to get it back. CAF funds can turn into unregulated police slush funds. When police departments are allowed to keep what they take, CAF funds exist beyond the purview of legislative or budgetary oversight so it's fairly common for police to misuse CAF funds.
(Please support H.R. 1658 through our online petition to Congress, at http://www.drcnet.org/forfeiture/ -- then follow up your e-mail or fax with a phone call!)