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Bipartisan House Measure Would Reform Asset Forfeiture Laws

Mutual interest in private property was enough to bridge the gap between Democrats and Republicans in a congressional committee, as the House’s legal affairs panel advanced a measure aimed at shoring up citizens'’ Fifth Amendment rights on Wednesday. The target of the bipartisan legislation: a law enforcement mechanism known as civil asset forfeiture. Current law allows authorities to seize cars, cash, or other property from individuals suspected of a crime. Not only can law enforcement take ownership of those possessions without an arrest, but they can even sell seized assets for profit. Certain types of asset forfeiture allow authorities to take ownership of property on an administrative basis without filing a case in federal court, a provision that the Department of Justice had said is designed to limit case volume for the judiciary, according to Courthouse News Service. Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have both been critical of how asset forfeiture tramples due process rights. If made law, the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act would increase the burden of proof on the government and law enforcement agencies to demonstrate that seized property is related to criminal activity. The measure would also shorten the time given to authorities to return seized belongings.

The House Judiciary Committee cleared the bill on a unanimous vote Wednesday, teeing it up for consideration by the full chamber. Chairman Jim Jordan (R-OH) said the need for asset-forfeiture reform was particularly urgent given the mechanism’s inherent profit motive. New York Democrat Jerry Nadler, the committee’s ranking member, joined in urging the measure’s passage. “As currently written, our federal asset forfeiture laws lack significant Fifth Amendment due process protections and create a set of perverse incentives for federal agencies to pursue civil forfeiture in cases where it is unwarranted,” he said. Nadler highlighted what he said was the outsized effects of the current law on low-income Americans and communities of color, citing a report presented by nonprofit Institute for Justice. The organization’s study found evidence that enforcement of asset forfeiture disproportionately affects Black men and that the practice can negatively affect low-income communities by stripping them of necessary resources. The proposed legislation would take some steps to level the playing field, such as doing away with the administrative forfeiture option and forcing law enforcement to seek a judicial order before seizing property. The bill would also provide legal counsel to defendants challenging forfeiture who are unable to afford a lawyer.


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