The US House of Representatives approved the compromise version of Rep. Henry Hyde's civil asset forfeiture reform bill this Tuesday (4/11). The Senate approved the measure unanimously two weeks ago, and President Clinton has said he will sign the bill into law when it reaches his desk.
The new law is intended to increase the burden of proof the government must show when it seizes a citizen's property. Since the passage of civil forfeiture laws in the 1980's, federal authorities have been empowered to seize a person's property simply upon a showing of probable cause that it is connected to a criminal act. The law was intended to prevent drug dealers and other criminals from profiting from their crimes or using proceeds from criminal activities to finance their defense in criminal cases. A 1991 investigative report by the Pittsburgh Press, however, found that in more than 80 percent of civil forfeiture cases, the property owner was never charged with a crime (see http://www.fear.org/pittpres.html).
Under the new law, the government must show that the property it wishes to seize is connected to a criminal act "by a preponderance of the evidence." In addition, the 10 percent bond that a property owner must pay to challenge the seizure has been dropped. The new law also provides for legal representation for indigent property owners, and includes a provision awarding attorney's fees to property owners who successfully challenge a seizure.
But the bill, which was supported by a diverse coalition including the American Civil Liberties Union and the US Chamber of Commerce, also contains compromises written in to secure the support of the Justice Department, which had opposed earlier versions. The compromise includes provisions making it easier for the government to seize property following a criminal conviction, and increases the scope of federal investigators' ability to obtain access to a suspect's financial records.
The impact of the new law upon the average citizen remains to be seen. Most US states have enacted laws similar to the federal forfeiture statutes of the 80's, and in many states local police departments may keep the profits of the assets they seize. But in states where local authorities must remit seized assets to other state agencies, it had become common practice to turn large forfeiture cases over to the federal government, which then returns 80 to 85 percent of the assets to local police departments. The new law, then, might help to curtail what some forfeiture reform advocates have called a police version of "money laundering," at least in cases where the evidence of seizability is marginal.
For more information about civil asset forfeiture reform, visit the web site of Forfeiture Endangers American Rights (FEAR) at http://www.fear.org.