Federal Forfeiture Legislation

Last update April 28, 2006

To write your Senators, address the mail to U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C. 20510. U.S. Representatives' mail should be addressed to U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C. 20515. To call your Congressmen through the Capitol Hill switchboard use 202-224-3121 or 202-225-3121.  To find the individual phone numbers of your Senators, check out the Internet Congressional Telephone Directory.

The USA PATRIOT Act: On October 26, 2001, President Bush signed the USA Patriot Act (USAPA) into law. With this law we have given sweeping new powers to both domestic law enforcement and international intelligence agencies and have eliminated the checks and balances that previously gave courts the opportunity to ensure that these powers were not abused. The increased property seizure options are nicely outlined by Stefan D. Cassella Deputy Chief, AFMLS Criminal Division, DOJ, in his article, "Forfeiture of Terrorist Assets Under the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001".

On April 25, 2000, President Clinton signed into law the "Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000", (hereinafter referred to as “CAFRA”).

CAFRA represents the culmination of a seven year effort to reform the United States’ civil asset forfeiture laws to make the procedures fair and more equitable. The intent is to strike an appropriate balance between the needs of law enforcement and the rights of individuals to not have their property forfeited without proper safeguards.

Materials on federal forfeiture reform bills from this Congress:

The Hyde bill, HR 1658, as passed in the House and Senate in 2000:

Charts comparing the features of the federal forfeiture bills that led to the passage of the Civil Asset Reform Act of 2000:

Watch this website and subscribe to FEAR-List -- for updates on the Hyde bill as the news breaks.

The history of our forfeiture reform bill - HR 1658

On June 24, HR 1658, the Hyde/Conyers/Barr/Frank Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform bill -- which we supported -- passed in the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 375 to 48! Only minutes earlier we handed Rep. Asa Hutchinson and the Department of Justice a huge defeat in the Hutchinson amendment, which would have gutted the reforms of the Hyde bill and made procedures worse than current law.  The vote on the Hutchinson amendment was 155 for and 268 against.  Hyde, clearly buoyed by the defeat of the Hutchinson amendment, asked that the bill be voted on immediately.  The chairman called a voice  vote and ruled "the ayes have it."  Hyde asked for a recorded vote, barely containing his excitement.  From the beginning our lead was tremendous -- it started out about 10 to 1 in favor of our bill and stayed there throughout the voting.  Throughout that time, C-Span flashed blurbs about the features of the bill on the screen.  It was a beautiful sight to see things like "puts the burden of proof on the government by 'clear and convincing evidence'", "provides for court appointed counsel" -- appearing on the screen, while the votes in our favor piled up.  See FEAR's analysis of the features of HR 1658.

To find out if your Congressman voted for or against HR 1658, click here.

The last minute lobbying and hijinks were intense.  On Tuesday, June 22, several Congressmen offered amendments to HR 1658, including Rep. Gilman, Rep. Hutchinson, Rep. Hyde, Rep. Meek, Rep. Paul, and Rep. Sweeney.  See our annotated webpage for a complete text of the proposed amendments to HR 1658 and our comments on them.  The Hutchinson/Weiner amendments were touted by the Fraternal Order of Police, in a widely distributed, last-minute press release as being a "compromise" which would restore due process "while preserving the ability of law enforcement to separate the proceeds of illegal activity from criminals and drug traffickers."  In reality, the Hutchinson/Weiner amendments made the procedures worse than current law for persons not charged with any crime.  Read our annotated version of the FOP press release.

On June 24, just before the original Hyde bill was offered for a vote before the full House of Representatives, the Hutchinson/Weiner amendments were served up to our Congressmen as an alternative "compromise" bill.  Some Congressmen and/or their staffs took the time to read the H/W amendments bill, which was in the nature of a substitute bill and in reality took all day to read and analyze.  Some of them received bulletins from us (thanks to our diligent supporters and the powers of the Internet) warning them that the H/W amendment didn't say what the FOP proclaimed.

The vote showed we made a difference with our e-mail and writing and calling our Congressmen.

The H/W amendments were defeated by a margin of 155 in favor to 268 against.   Why did so many more Congressmen support the H/W amendments and then vote for HR 1658 in its original form?  If they had truly read and considered the content of the H/W amendments, voting for them would mean making things worse than current law.  Why would they then turn around and vote for our reform bill, which restores due process?  Our best educated guess is that the Fraternal Order of Police's press release convinced a number of them that they could compromise -- achieve the due process reforms yet give the cops the bone they wanted -- by voting for the H/W amendments.

For the record, on Tuesday, June 15, the House Judiciary Committee passed HR 1658 by a margin of 27 to 3.  The bill had 59 cosponsors.  Read Rep. Paul's press release urging other Congressmen to join him in supporting this bill.  This week, a number of prominent police professionals, including Ronald Hampton, Executive Director, National Black Police Association; Joseph McNamara, Retired Police Chief San Jose, California, Fellow, Hoover Institution; Patrick V. Murphy, Former Police Commissioner, New York City, Washington, D.C. and Detroit; Nick Pastore, Former Police Chief, New Haven, Connecticut; and Peter Christ, Retired Police Captain, Tonawanda, NY sent a letter to Representative Hyde endorsing the bill!

Read  the text of HR1658, as reported out of the Judiciary committee.  Other materials worth reading are:  the speech that Rep. Hyde gave at the May 3 CATO Institute Forfeiture conference, Michael Lynch's article for REASON On-Line about the CATO conference, "Police Beat: In Which Our Man In Washington Observes the Nation's Guardians,"Drug Policy Foundation's Press Release, Leon Felkins' commentary, "Forfeiture Reform Legislation: Will It Be Now or Never?,  the bulletin on HR 1658 by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and Fulton Huxtable's commentary and Libertarian Party press release on HR 1658.

On October 7, 1999, Senators Sessions and Schumer introduced S-1701, a forfeiture expansion bill written by the Department of Justice. The sponsors of S-1701 are: Senators *Jeff Sessions (R. Ala.) and *Charles Schumer (D. N.Y.).  The cosponsors are:  *Strom Thurmond (R. S.C.), *Joseph Biden (D. Del.), Jesse Helms (R. N.C.), *Diane Feinstein (D. Cal.) and Max Cleland (D. Ga.).  (Senators marked by asterisks are on the Senate Judiciary Committee.)

We reported earlier that reliable sources on Capitol Hill say that S-1701 is virtually identical to the DOJ-drafted bill HR 1965, introduced in 1997 - only worse.  Now that we've made a chart comparing the provisions section by section  it's clear that there's not a single provision in S-1701 that isn't identical to or worse than comparable provisions in HR 1965!  As you may recall, HR 1965 was so outrageous it spawned a coalition of nonprofit groups from across the political spectrum who united to defeat it.  It's time to get active and defeat this horrible bill!  Write, call, e-mail, and/or visit your Senators and urge them to oppose S-1701 and to cosponsor a Senate version of the Hyde bill, HR 1658 - which has already passed in the House.

We saw this horrible bill coming when the U.S. Senate Criminal Oversight Committee held hearings on asset forfeiture on July 21, 1999.  The program was entitled "Oversight of Federal Asset Forfeiture: Its Role in Fighting Crime."  As we expected, the program was skewed in favor of law enforcement agencies.  Out of 10 scheduled speakers, only three were chosen who support forfeiture reform -- Rep. Henry Hyde, Sam Buffone from NACDL and Roger Pilon from Cato Institute (the link is to Roger's testimony).  The rest were from the law enforcement agencies who reap the economic benefits of forfeiture revenue - DOJ, Treasury, DEA, Customs, Fraternal Order of Police and a Sheriffs Association.   According to the BNA Criminal Law Reporter, Michael Connolly, press secretary for the House Judiciary Committee, said "'We are confident the Senate will move on it this Congress,' with action expected in 1999, as opposed to 2000."

Fortunately, all of these competing Senate bills are dead in the water, now that HR 1658 passed in the Senate.

Prior History:  The 1997-1998 Congressional session

In the 1997-1998 Congressional session, Representative Hyde introduced HR 1835, which is very similar to our bill which was passed in the House this year -- HR 1658.  After the hearings on HR 1835 on July 22, 1997, the House Judiciary Committee let the Justice Department lobbyists rewrite the bill and rename it HR 1965, making it worse than current law.

HR 1965 was so outrageous that a host of nonprofit organizations from across the political spectrum joined together to fight it.  The ACLU, the National Rifle Association, Gun Owners of America and the Conservative Concensus all issued press releases urging their members to oppose HR-1965! When was the last time those groups ever agreed on anything?

It worked!  Only one congressman ever signed on as a cosponsor for the Justice Department bill, and finally on March 14, Rep. Hyde dumped HR-1965 and let it be known that he favored a return to the reforms of HR 1835, the way it was before the DOJ rewrote it.  (Read the NRA Press Release.) But then Congress got caught up in impeachment proceedings and nothing more had been done on forfeiture reform.

DOJ's bill -- the 1997 bill HR-1965 -- is history now, or is it?  Compare these features to the Hutchinson/Weiner amendment to this year's HR 1658, and you'll see they're the same provisions, just arranged differently!