Forfeiture Law Debate
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Since 1970, the federal drug laws have allowed the government to seize property that is used in drug crimes or that is the profit of drug crimes. When the government takes ownership of this seized property, it is called forfeiture. On their face, these laws make sense. People who own and use property like airplanes and ships to smuggle drugs to the U.S. deserve to have them taken away.
Imagine that federal law enforcement officials had the right to seize your property your home, your car, your business and you hadn't even been convicted of a crime. Currently asset forfeiture is used by federal law enforcement officials as a dream way to fill their coffers by seizing assets allegedly used in a crime. But asset forfeiture has become a nightmare for many Americans who have been accused of a crime but have not been proven guilty. In many cases, even when the accused citizens are found innocent, they face an expensive struggle with government bureaucrats to recover their property. Many times they are unsuccessful in ever recovering their property.
In Washington D.C., James Hoyle's 72- year -old mother's home was seized by FBI agents and DC police officers when her nephew Mark, who was staying there overnight, was suspected and later charged with drug dealing. More than 15 FBI agents, armed with what appeared to be automatic weapons, placed Mark under arrest and began searching the house. After handcuffing Ms. Hoyle, they took all of her televisions, VCRs, family photos, personal papers, and an automobile. It took twelve police officers to tear the built-in television set out of the wall. One of the police officers was caught on camera saying: "How do you like your new house?" The warrant was based on an informant's claim that he made a drug deal with Mark on the front porch years earlier. Testimony of James Hoyle before Subcommittee on Legislation and National Security of the House Comm. On Government Operations, Sept. 30, 1992.
HENRY HYDE introduced the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 1999 with 25 co-sponsors including my Judiciary Committee colleagues John Conyers, Bob Barr and Barney Frank. The bill proposes eight common-sense reforms that will bring a modicum of sanity to our federal civil forfeiture laws:
The bill requires that if a property owner challenges a seizure, the federal government to prove by clear and convincing evidence that property is subject to forfeiture.
The bill allows judges to order property released pending final disposition of forfeiture cases if continued possession by the government would cause the property owners substantial hardship.
The bill allows judges to appoint counsel for indigents in civil forfeiture proceedings.
The bill eliminates the requirement that a property owner file a 10% cost bond to challenge the seizure of property.
The bill provides a uniform innocent owner defense for all federal civil forfeitures.
The bill allows a property owner to sue the government for the destruction of seized property while in the government’s possession.
The bill increases the time period a property owner has to challenge a civil forfeiture.
The bill awards interest to a property owner who is successful in winning money back.
Civil forfeiture statutes can have a place in law enforcement, provided that they are not abused and they provide a minimum level of protection for property owners. I believe my bill will curtail abuse and establish adequate protections. It will make civil asset forfeiture statutes worthy of our constitution and our system of justice. The Senate has yet to act on this legislation. Contact your Senators and urge them to consider and support the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 1999!