ACLU Says Changes In Civil Asset Forfeiture Bill

Make Continued Support Impossible


Tuesday, July 22, 1997

WASHINGTON - Although it supported previous versions of legislation to reform the nation's civil asset forfeiture system, the American Civil Liberties Union today said that changes made by the House Judiciary Committee have made continued support of the bill impossible.

Despite recent news reports suggesting that the ACLU supported the revised bill, Nadine Strossen, ACLU President and Professor of Constitutional Law at New York Law School, said the new legislation - H.R. 1965 approved by the Judiciary Committee on June 20 -is seriously flawed.

"While we applaud Chairman Henry Hyde for his leadership on this issue over the years and remain strongly committed to reforming the civil asset forfeiture laws in this nation," Strossen said, "we are deeply disappointed that the bill ultimately reported out of the Judiciary Committee is seriously flawed and we cannot support it in its current form.

"The Committee managed to take a swan of legislation and turn it into an ugly duckling," Strossen said in reference to how the original civil asset forfeiture bill, H.R. 1835, was abandoned at the last moment in favor of H.R. 1965. Just last month, Strossen testified before the House Judiciary Committee in support of H.R. 1835, the original forfeiture bill.

The original legislation enjoyed bipartisan support from across the political spectrum including the primary cosponsors Chairman Hyde, Ranking Member John Conyers, Democrat of Michigan, Representative Bob Barr, Republican of Georgia, Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, as well as a diverse group of organizations including the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the CATO Institute and the Institute for Justice.

But the legislative change, according to Laura Murphy, Director of the ACLU's Washington National Office, was made in an apparent effort to appease the U.S. Department of Justice and other law enforcement agencies. "Ironically," Murphy said, "the Justice Department and other enforcement agencies are the very entities the legislation was originally designed to reform."

The ACLU said that it is particularly disappointed because the civil liberties community was one of the earliest supporters of Chairman Hyde in his crusade to reform the abusive civil forfeiture system in the country.

Moreover, several key members of the Judiciary Committee expressed dissatisfaction with the new bill and one of the original cosponsors of H.R. 1835, Rep. Barr, even voted against the bill in the Committee.

On the other hand, the bill approved by the Judiciary Committee, H.R. 1965, was quickly opposed by those organizations. "It is very much like a bait-and-switch situation," Murphy said.

While H.R. 1965 offers an important reform in that it shifts the burden of proof back to the government to prove the validity of the seizure, it contains many provisions that make the legislation worse than no reform at all.

For example, the bill contains a "star chamber" provision for the appointment of counsel for indigent property owners. To obtain appointed counsel, the property owner would have to submit to unlimited questioning and cross examination by the federal prosecutor - a proceeding found nowhere else in American jurisprudence.

The bill also vastly expands the government's ability to seize property by allowing law enforcement officials to seize a citizen's property even when there is no probable cause to believe the property is forfeitable. Under current law and the Fourth Amendment, the government is prohibited from taking a citizen's property without first satisfying the minimum standard of probable cause.

Finally, the bill greatly expands the government's authority to use criminal forfeiture statutes. "This bill would represent one small step forward and two very large steps back for forfeiture reform" Murphy said. "Under this legislation, the government would be allowed to continue its abusive forfeiture tactics and citizens will be exposed to new and possibly more harmful forfeiture laws."

As it is currently drafted, H.R. 1965 simply does not adequately reform the forfeiture laws in this country, Murphy concluded.

"We strongly urge Chairman Hyde to reconsider H.R. 1965 and, instead, offer a bill that provides truly meaningful reform of the forfeiture laws," ACLU President Strossen said. "It indeed would be a sad day if we miss this important opportunity to fix a system that is in desperate need of repair."