VOTES TO CRACK DOWN ON CIVIL ASSET FORFEITURE
Illinois Policy Institute/
A bipartisan group of federal lawmakers,
including members of the House Progressive and House Freedom caucuses,
have put forth a measure to limit the use of federal dollars in certain
civil asset forfeiture proceedings.
A bipartisan proposal to curb civil
asset forfeiture is making progress on Capitol Hill, as a bill to do the same in
Illinois awaits the signature of Gov. Bruce Rauner.
On Sept. 12, the U.S. House of Representatives voted in favor of amendment
provisions that seek to restrict funds from being used to carry out Attorney
General Jeff Sessions’ recent asset forfeiture order. The asset forfeiture
provisions are part of a broader federal appropriations package. The move comes
in the wake of Sessions’ decision to revive a federal asset forfeiture program
known as “adoptive forfeiture,” which the Obama administration had discontinued
The asset forfeiture restrictions were sponsored by representatives on both
sides of the aisle, including lawmakers from the House Progressive and House
Sessions’ asset forfeiture order allows the practice whereby state and local law
enforcement agencies seize property under state law and coordinate with federal
authorities to forfeit the property under federal law. This allows officials to
bypass state laws restricting civil asset forfeiture.
Proponents of civil asset forfeiture claim the practice defunds criminals, but
police don’t even have to wait until someone’s been proven guilty.
Under civil asset forfeiture, law enforcement can confiscate property from
individuals who are suspected of having committed crimes, but who have not been
convicted. A study from the Institute of Justice shows that between 1997 and
2013, 87 percent of Department of Justice asset forfeitures were civil, not
criminal – meaning that most often, property was seized from people who hadn’t
even been convicted of a crime.
The resurrected adoptive forfeiture program encourages federal law enforcement
and local and state authorities to share seized revenues and assets. This
creates an incentive for more seizures, with no criminal convictions needed.
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Asset forfeiture has
proved quite lucrative for law enforcement at all levels in
Illinois, with federal law enforcement seizing $404 million in
assets since 2005, and state and local law enforcement taking $319
million in the same time period.
Illinois lawmakers have also sought to reform this unjust practice.
The General Assembly passed civil asset forfeiture reform in June.
House Bill 303 would shift the burden of proof from the property
owner to the government. Currently, those targeted for property
confiscation by authorities have to prove their innocence just to
keep their own stuff. And in order to fight forfeitures, accused
property owners have to pay a “cost bond” of 10 percent of the value
of the seized property before their case can even be heard. HB 303
eliminates this requirement.
HB 303 received overwhelming bipartisan support in both chambers:
The bill was approved 100-1 in the Illinois House of
Representatives, and passed the Illinois Senate without a single
“no” vote. The bill now sits on Gov. Bruce Rauner’s desk.
Asset forfeiture without a criminal conviction is fundamentally
unjust. Government authorities shouldn’t be able to confiscate
someone’s property just because that person or his or her property
is suspected of having been involved in a crime. The bedrock
principle of the U.S. justice system is “innocent until proven
guilty,” but abusive policies such as civil asset forfeiture
undermine that standard.
Through these reforms, federal and state lawmakers are promoting
policies that better reflect “innocent until proven guilty.”
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