Progress in Congress for real civil forfeiture reform

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For the last couple of years, I’ve been monitoring every change in the law in the United States in the area of civil forfeiture. Last week, the prospects for major change in federal law improved significantly. The House Judiciary Committee, which is often bitterly divided on partisan grounds, unanimously approved legislation to reshape civil forfeiture.

The unanimous 26-0 vote for H.R. 1525, the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act, is a kind of endorsement of comprehensive civil forfeiture reform. The measure would:

  • End the use of internal administrative hearings for forfeiture judgments, or (in other words) cabin the powers of forfeiture to Article III courts;
  • Require the government to prove that victims of forfeiture had actual or constructive knowledge of a crime, which is a sharp improvement over the current requirement of proof – namely, that the property probably was connected to a crime;
  • Send forfeiture proceeds to the U.S. Treasury, not to the budgets of law enforcement agencies; and
  • Eliminate “equitable sharing,” which currently allows state and local law enforcement agencies to hand off seizures and forfeiture proceedings to the federal government in exchange for a portion of the revenue that the federal seizure generates.

Because of the surprising strength of the unanimous committee vote in favor of the FAIR Act, it is reasonably likely that the measure will be scheduled for a floor vote – that is, a vote by the whole House of Representatives – sometime this summer.