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Move Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Legislation Through the House of Representatives -- Bi-Partisan HR 1658 Needs Your
May 4, the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 1999, HR 1658, was introduced in the House, by Judiciary Committee Chair Henry Hyde (R-IL); Ranking Democrat on the Committee, John Conyers (D-MI); former US Attorney Bob Barr (R-GA); and Ranking Democrat on the Courts and Intellectual Property Subcommittee of House Judiciary, Barney Frank (D-MA).
It is supported by a broad range of conservative, business, and civil rights organizations, including, for example, NACDL, ACLU, Eagle Forum, the National Rifle Association, the American Bankers Association, the National Association of Realtors, the American Conservative Union, the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, and the Institute for Justice.
HR 1658 has almost 30 original cosponsors from both parties, including, e.g., Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and House Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee Chair, Lamar Smith (R-TX). We need more!
Following is an outline of current law and the important reforms contained in HR 1658. Use the outline, along with the Summary of Recent Cases of Civil Asset Forfeiture Abuses of Innocent, Legitimate businesspeople and Entities (http://criminaljustice.org/public.nsf/Alerts/99LegAlert03?OpenDocument), to urge Representatives from both parties to co-sponsor HR 1658.
Time is of the essence. Call the House Switchboard Operator, at (202) 225-3121, and ask to be connected to your Representative's Office. Ask for the person handling criminal justice or business issues (this is a property rights/business issue). See attached summary of recent civil asset forfeiture abuses of innocent, legitimate businesspeople and entities.
Let them know you are calling to urge the Representative to co-sponsor HR 1658, and to help move it through the House as soon as possible. Urge them to contact House Judiciary Committee Counsel George Fishman, at (202) 225-5727, ASAP, to be added as a cosponsor of the bill. Let them know that this bill is the same as HR 1835 from last Congress, and a thorough hearing record is available on the bill from last Congress (Hearing of June 11, 1997, Serial No. 22).
Build from the Ground Up: Share the summary of business case abuses with your local chamber of commerce and businesses in your area, as well. Educate them, and enlist their crucial help in applying all-important grassroots pressure on House members. This should help debunk the DOJ's 2 favorites myths: (1) they only use the civil asset forfeiture laws to take the "profit out of crime," by seizing the assets of "drug lords" and "terrorists"; and (2) they "may" have abused the civil asset forfeiture laws years ago, but no longer do.
Summary of Current Civil Asset Forfeiture Law; and the
Reforms of HR 1658:
Current Law: Through the Looking Glass
Under current civil asset forfeiture laws, federal government agencies can seize and forfeit private property, including your home, your car, your business and your bank account -- all without any indictment, hearing or trial. The government simply "says" the property at some point was involved in criminal activity of some sort. You need not have ever been aware of this. You can be entirely innocent. It does not matter.
Indeed, in some 80% of the cases, no criminal charge is even filed. The property is simply seized on the basis of "probable cause." Probable cause is ordinarily only enough to justify a search of property, not enough to authorize agencies to summarily seize private property, and permanently forfeit it to the government. Probable cause can be based on nothing more than hearsay. In fact, it is often based on the story of a "confidential informant" who is himself suspected of drug dealing or other crimes, who sells his "testimony" to help the government seize valuable assets (which they keep in their own operating budgets) -- simply to save himself from prosecution, or, as is also common, for a "contingency fee" cut of the assets that are seized based on his "testimony."
The property seized, sought to be permanently forfeited by the government, can be retrieved only by the owner filing a lawsuit against the government, and pursuing expensive, time-consuming litigation -- in which he shoulders the burden of proof. The individual or business property owner must prove the negative: that the property is in fact innocent of any connection with any wrong-doing. And, to even get into court, one must first post a "cost bond" equal to 10% of the value of the assets the government has seized. When individuals or businesses have had most if not all of their assets summarily seized, it can be impossible to come up with this peculiar, 10% "cost" of entering the courthouse to challenge the government’s seizure and forfeiture actions -- let alone hiring counsel and paying other litigation costs.
Key Reforms in HR 1658: Restoring the Balance of Fairness
HR 1658 would restore some due process and basic balance to the outrageous civil asset forfeiture laws. Among other key reforms:
-- HR 1658 puts the burden to seize and forfeit property where it belongs: on the government (by at least clear and convincing evidence).
-- It provides indigent persons (or those rendered indigent by summary
government asset seizure), the right to court-appointed counsel to challenge
the government’s taking of the property.
-- The bill allows property owners who are innocent to get their property back, by establishing a uniform innocent owner defense under all federal civil asset forfeiture statutes.
-- It eliminates the 10% "cost bond" requirement, whereby now the owner must post a bond worth 10% of the total assets seized, simply in order to "buy" his way into court, to challenge the government’s property-taking. This cost bond requirement often prices citizens and businesses out of the court system, so that they do not contest the government’s taking, simply because they cannot afford to do so.
-- HR 1658 provides compensation to property owners for damage to their property caused by negligent handling or storage while in government control.