Forfeiture Endangers American Rights

Background on CAFRA passage

Written April 27, 2000 by Brenda Grantland, Esq.; Revised October 23, 2003, by Leon Felkins

On April 25, 2000, President Clinton signed CAFRA (the Hyde bill or HR 1658) into law, and it took effect on August 23, 2000.  (The only provisions that took effect earlier were the reinstitution of the fugitive disentitlement doctrine -- a judicially created mechanism by which courts refused to let claimants defend their forfeiture cases if they were fugitives from justices in a pending criminal case.  The Supreme Court declared the fugitive disentitlement doctrine unauthorized by statute in the 1996 case Degen v. United States, 517 U.S. 820 (1996).  This statute resurrects that doctrine (in one of the compromises that Reno insisted on.)

The original version of HR 1658 passed overwhelmingly - 375 to 48 - in the House of Representatives in June, 1999.  The momentum from that surprising landslide in our favor (thanks to the overwhelming public support from people like you who wrote and called their Congressmen)  propelled this bill past the outraged, self-interested lobbyists from the police unions, who almost stalled our reforms out in the Senate.  The Senate passed a watered down version of HR 1658 on March 27, 2000, and on April 11, Rep. Hyde presented the amended version of HR 1658, to the House of Representatives where it was adopted as amended.

The compromise bill waters down the original Hyde bill's provisions somewhat, but it is still a strong positive change.  The best features are: (1) the cost bond is abolished, (2) there will now be court appointed counsel for indigents (with exceptions), (3) property can be returned to the property owner pending trial on a showing of hardship, and (4) there is a strengthened innocent owner defense that applies across the board to virtually all civil forfeiture statutes.  Even with the compromise the new law will go a long way to level the playing field for poor and middle class forfeiture victims -- particularly innocent owners -- and will force the U.S. Attorney's Office to take a look at the merits of the case, instead of having the seizing agency win most cases by default when the claimant fails to file a claim and cost bond on time.

Posted here, for your reading pleasure, are the following materials on the new law.  Watch this website or subscribe to FEAR-List  for news about further developments as they happen.  For more history of this legislation and previous unsuccessful bills from the past few years, see the Federal Legislation page on this website.

This is a major victory for FEAR, even though Congress adopted only a small portion of our reform package, and gave in to DOJ demands which made the law worse in some areas.   Clearly there is much more work to be done, but this shows us that we are on the right track, and that we can achieve our goals, even if we are David to the police lobby's Goliath.

Thanks again all of you who have worked so hard for so many years, believing in the impossible.  Somehow, we did it!  It may not be all that we wanted in our reform bill (in fact, it's a far cry from that) but it took years for the government to get all of these powers and exceptions to the Constitution, and it will take a similar amount of time and effort on our part to roll things back to the way they were before 1984.  This is a giant first step!  Let's keep moving forward!