Reform Coalition Succeeds; Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Sails Through the Senate
Unfair Asset Grabs Halted
Washington, DC (March 28, 2000) -- Innocent citizens will no longer suffer at the hands of overzealous law enforcement officials who unfairly seize property and other assets, thanks to hard-fought reform legislation passed unanimously by the Senate last night.
Passage of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 (S. 1931) institutes overdue protections for citizens and reins in the government’s ability to arbitrarily seize private property, small businesses and other assets without due process of law.
“Americans have suffered too long as a result of unfair forfeiture of their homes, autos, and other personal belongings near and dear to them,” said William B. Moffitt, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL).
NACDL led a broad reform coalition urging changes in the law. According to Moffitt, “this measure re-establishes the bedrock notion in our democracy of innocence until proven guilty and makes it clear that the government has the burden of proving guilt.”
The legislation, which passed the House overwhelmingly last June, has been a key priority for NACDL for more than a decade. The NACDL’s concern has been that the prior law permitted large- scale violation of constitutional rights and principles because the government could seize property on the basis of mere suspicion that property was connected to illegal activity.
The reforms create new procedures governing asset forfeiture. They include:
Requiring warrants or that the government proceed by recognized exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment to obtain property for forfeiture.
Shifting the burden of proof in asset forfeiture squarely to the government by requiring the government to show complicity by a “preponderance of the evidence.”
Expanding the time during which a person whose assets have been seized may file a claim.
Requiring seizing agencies to comply with strict notice and time requirements.
Allowing for release of seized property in certain hardship cases.
Allowing the appointment of counsel for indigent claimants in appropriate cases.
Requiring payment of reasonable attorneys fees in virtually all cases where the claimants prevail.
Allowing an action for damages against the government for harm to seized property while under the government’s control.
Moffitt noted that this reform legislation would not have been possible without the long-term commitment and concern of House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde (R-IL), the author of “Forfeiting Our Property Rights” (Published by the Cato Institute), who has championed the need for asset forfeiture reform. Moffitt also commended the bi-partisan leadership of Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) for shepherding the reform legislation through the Senate.
These meaningful reforms will go a long way to addressing the legitimate concerns which have been raised by a host of diverse groups, said Moffitt. NACDL was joined in its fight for asset forfeiture reform by the National Rife Association, the ACLU, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Realtors, the American Bankers Association, the American Bar Association and others.