Legislation in Congress Would Block Jeff Sessions' Asset Forfeiture Bonanza
Several House Republicans are proposing amendments to a large funding bill moving through Congress to block Attorney General Jeff Sessions' recent directive expanding the federal government's civil asset forfeiture program.
Last month, Sessions announced he was rolling back Obama-era restrictions on when federal law enforcement could "adopt" civil asset forfeiture cases from local and state police. Conservative and liberal civil liberties groups say federal "adoptions" amount to a loophole allowing local police to avoid stricter state laws and higher standards of evidence when seizing private property.
Nearly half of all states have passed some form of asset forfeiture reform over the past several years in response to bipartisan pressure and media investigations that revealed asset forfeiture abuses and their disproportionate impact on poor and minority residents.
Under typical civil asset forfeiture laws, police can seize property when they suspect it's connected to criminal activity, even if the owner is not convicted or even charged with a crime.
The four amendments are proposed to be added to H.R. 3354, a massive piece of legislation consolidating eight other appropriations bills. Each aims in slightly different ways to stop the Justice Department from spending any funds to implement Sessions' order.
Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), a vocal critic of asset forfeiture, introduced an amendment that would block the Justice Department from funding any of the activities prohibited by a 2015 directive from former attorney general Eric Holder limiting the program.
"When the government takes people's property without due process, it's a violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments—and it's theft," Amash says in a statement to Reason. "I'm writing a bill to end civil asset forfeiture throughout the United States. In the meantime, my amendment will prevent state and local law enforcement from teaming up with the federal government to sidestep state laws that restrict these unconstitutional takings."
Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Tim Walberg (R-MI) are asking for a change blocking the Justice Department from funding Sessions' directive. The department's forfeiture program existed prior to Sessions' order, so it's unclear what effects the amendments would have if passed.
A fourth proposed amendment by Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH) would simply block spending for any transfer from the Justice Department's Asset Forfeiture Fund to state or local police.
The amendments were first noted by FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group that has opposed civil asset forfeiture.
"Let's be clear. Congress has to pass comprehensive legislation to reform federal forfeiture laws, which have been abused and will continue to be abused under Attorney General Sessions' directive," FreedomWorks vice president of legislative affairs Jason Pye tells Reason. "But an amendment prohibiting the use of funds from being used to carry out adoptive seizures is something that FreedomWorks will wholeheartedly support. It will be a positive step forward to address the issue until a bill like the DUE PROCESS Act, FAIR Act or some other yet to be introduced legislation is passed."
Another amendment by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) would redirect $10 million from the Justice Department's Asset Forfeiture Fund into the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant Program.
The amendments head to the House Rules Committee, which will decide which amendments will be considered in floor votes on the bill. Those votes are expected to happen next week.
With the passage of legislation a small miracle these days, legislators have taken to tacking amendments onto funding bills needed to keep the government running. These bills are necessary with Congress unable to pass annual budgets.
The asset forfeiture amendments are similar to several that have been added to appropriations bills in recent years that block the Justice Department from spending funds to enforce marijuana laws in states that have legalized the drug for medicinal use.
Of course, such amendments have to be introduced and added again each time a new funding bill is passed, or else they stop taking effect. Without changes to the underlying laws, they are annoying but temporary roadblocks to administrations bent on continuing the war on drugs.