WASHINGTON (CN) — The political gulf between Democrats and Republicans in Congress may be widening, but mutual interest in private property was enough to bridge the gap Wednesday as the House’s legal affairs panel advanced a measure aimed at shoring up Americans’ Fifth Amendment rights.
The target of the bipartisan legislation: a law enforcement mechanism known as civil assets forfeiture. Today the 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, 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.
For innocent Americans, however, the wide-ranging authority of forfeiture law has given rise to some unintended consequences and has attracted the attention of the Supreme Court. Just two months ago, the justices agreed to consider a case brought by two women who had their cars seized by Alabama authorities in connection with crimes that they were not involved in.
Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have both been critical how assets forfeiture trample due process rights. Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin and Michigan Republican Tim Walberg proposed a bill in March that would make it harder for law enforcement to freely seize property.
If made law, the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act would, among other things, increase the burden of proof on the government and law enforcement agencies to demonstrate that seized property is related to criminal activity. The bipartisan 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 morning, teeing it up for consideration by the full chamber.
Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan, the Republican chair of the judiciary panel, said during the bill’s markup that the need for assets-forfeiture reform was particularly urgent given the mechanism’s inherent profit motive.
“This can create a perverse incentive to seize and sell the private property of potentially innocent citizens to increase agency revenues, despite some states’ efforts to protect property rights,” Jordain said. “The result is a system that unjustly infringes on the liberties of innocent American citizens.”
New York Democrat Jerry Nadler, the committee’s ranking member, joined his Republican colleagues 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,” the congressman said.
Nadler highlighted what he said was the outsized effects of current law on low-income Americans and communities of color, citing a report presented by legal nonprofit the Institute for Justice during a June 6 subcommittee hearing. The organization’s study found evidence that enforcement of assets 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, forcing law enforcement to seek a judicial order before seizing property. The bill would also provide legal counsel to civil defendants challenging forfeiture who are unable to afford a lawyer.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle praised the measure’s bipartisan approach.
“Our civil forfeiture system is in need of reform,” Pennsylvania Democrat Mary Gay Scanlon said, “and I’m really heartened by the bipartisan support that this bill has.”
Bill sponsor Walberg celebrated the unanimous vote. “This bill takes significant steps to reform civil asset forfeiture and restore the constitutional rights of Americans,” the Michigan Republican tweeted.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the legislation had yet to be scheduled for a vote in the full House.Follow @BenjaminSWeiss
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