Following Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent announcement that the Justice Department will overhaul its civil asset forfeiture program, a group of congressmen including introduced a bill in Congress Tuesday to reform the practice.
Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) and Rep. Tim Walberg (R., Mich.) reintroduced the FAIR Act in the Senate and House. The bill would strengthen protections for property seized under asset forfeiture programs.
Under civil asset forfeiture laws, law enforcement agents can seize property—cars, cash, even houses—suspected of being connected to criminal activity without charging the property owner with a crime. Asset forfeiture laws are intended to disrupt organized crime, especially drug trafficking, but civil liberties advocates say that in practice they just as often target regular citizens for petty or nonexistent crimes.
"The federal government has made it far too easy for government agencies to take and profit from the property of those who have not been convicted of a crime," Paul said in a statement Tuesday. "The FAIR Act will ensure that government agencies no longer profit from taking the property of U.S. citizens without due process, while maintaining the ability of courts to order the surrender of proceeds of crime."
Holder announced earlier this month the Justice Department would curb its equitable sharing program that funnels proceeds from forfeitures to state and local police departments across the country.
The shift in policy came after a year of critical news reports on the limited oversight of police and lax protections for property owners surrounding asset forfeitures and seizures. The Washington Post ran an investigative series last summer on how police across the country seized hundreds of millions of dollars from motorists who were never charged with a crime.
The Washington Free Beacon also reported from Philadelphia, home of one of the most aggressive civil forfeiture programs in the country.
The Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm, is currently suing Philadelphia to halt its forfeiture program. The Institute for Justice and civil liberties groups applauded Holder’s decision, but they still stressed the need for legislative reform as well.
"The FAIR Act would provide essential protections for innocent property owners who have for decades lost their cash, cars, homes, and other property without being convicted of or even charged with a crime," Scott Bullock, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, said in a statement Tuesday. "This legislation would also go a long way toward stopping the perverse practice of policing for profit, where for the past 30 years federal law enforcement officials have been able to keep for their own use the property they seize and forfeit from Americans."
Paul introduced the FAIR Act in the last session of Congress, but this time around he might find he has more allies.
"America was founded on the principles of due process and property rights," Rep. Walberg, the bill’s lead sponsor in the House, said in a statement. "These principles must be defended, not undermined by a system that allows the government to seize an individual’s private property without filing criminal charges."
A bipartisan group of congressmen from the House and Senate judiciary committees sent a letter to Holder earlier this month pressing him to halt the fed’s asset forfeiture program.