Civil Asset Forfeiture

House Approves Amendments to Block Sessions' Asset Forfeiture Directive

In a rebuke to Jeff Sessions, the House of Representatives approved several bipartisan amendments to block his asset forfeiture directive.


Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto/Sipa/Newscom

The Republican-led House of Representatives approved three amendments to a large spending bill Tuesday that would attempt to block Attorney General Jeff Sessions' civil asset forfeiture directive.

In July, Sessions announced he was ending restrictions put in place by former attorney general Eric Holder on when federal law enforcement could "adopt" asset forfeiture cases from state and local police.

Asset forfeiture—a practice that allows police to seize property suspected of being connected to criminal activity, even when the owner is not charged with a crime—has come under bipartisan criticism in recent years. Holder's directive was intended to stop local police from using federal adoptions to bypass stricter state asset forfeiture laws passed in response to those criticisms.

Sessions' July order was met with outrage from not just Democrats, but also several Republican lawmakers who have opposed the practice. As Reason previously reported, Republican and Democrat members introduced amendments in August to try and use Congress' power of the purse to block the Justice Department from being able to spend any funds on implementing 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[…]

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.

The House approved Amash, Raskin and Walberg's amendments, which also had bipartisan cosponsors, by a nearly unanimous voice vote Tuesday.

"Under current civil forfeiture law, the system is ripe for abuse and has undermined the constitutional rights of far too many Americans," Walberg said in a statement. "We should not accept a system where the government can seize innocent people's property without charging them with a crime."

Advocacy groups such as the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm that has challenged asset forfeiture laws in several states, applauded the votes.

"Civil forfeiture is one of the greatest threats to private property rights," said Institute for Justice attorney Robert Everett Johnson. "But today, hundreds of members of Congress came together and voted to block an alarming expansion of this government power."

A Reason investigation earlier this year showed asset forfeiture in Chicago primarily hit the city's poor, minority neighborhoods. An investigation by the Nevada Policy Research Institute in Las Vegas had similar findings.

"In a rebuke to the Justice Department, the House voted today to stand for civil liberties, and curb the federal government's ability to take a person's property without due process of law," said Holly Harris, the TKTKT of the Justice Action Network, a bipartisan criminal justice advocacy group. "It's astonishing that, here in America, someone's property can be forfeited even when that person has never been charged with a crime."

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.