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The House Tells Sessions’ Justice Department It Will Not Stand for Civil Asset Forfeiture

Jeff Sessions
Jeff Sessions
Kanya Bennett,
Former Senior Legislative Counsel,
American Civil Liberties Union
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September 13, 2017

The U.S. House sent a strong message of rebuke to Attorney General Jeff Sessions on civil asset forfeiture last night. The House adopted three amendments offered to an appropriations bill that prohibit the Department of Justice from using funds to increase certain federal and local forfeiture practices.

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) summed up the problem with civil asset forfeiture in one sentence. “It is an unconstitutional practice that is used to violate the due process rights of innocent people,” he said from the House floor.

This bipartisan showing was in response to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ July announcement to expand the use of civil forfeiture. Sessions’ action was a reversal of a 2015 Attorney General Eric Holder policy that prevented local law enforcement from using federal forfeiture laws to circumvent more restrictive state forfeiture laws.

The House votes also signaled that Congress remains committed to comprehensive civil forfeiture reform.

The ACLU joined a diverse set of partners in support of these amendments. Our organizations believe that the “civil forfeiture system undermines property rights and is fundamentally unjust.” The ACLU is particularly concerned with civil forfeitures’ impact on poor people and people of color. As Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) said on the House floor yesterday, “Forfeiture efforts tend to target poor neighborhoods” and that forfeiture “does not discriminate between the innocent and the guilty.”

The House votes also signaled that Congress remains committed to comprehensive civil forfeiture reform. Like Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) said, “This amendment is a starting point, and we can’t stop here.” The ACLU will continue its work with members on both sides of the aisle to advance legislation like the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act and the DUE PROCESS Act. These bills would provide important procedural protections for those who want their day in court to challenge forfeitures, and the FAIR Act would address the profit incentive that is driving forfeiture.

Over on the Senate side, civil forfeiture reformers, like Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), also had a bone to pick with the practice. Yesterday, Grassley wrote Sessions expressing outrage with the U.S. Marshals’ misuse of forfeiture funds. The marshals have used forfeiture funds to furnish a Texas facility with “high-end granite countertops and expensive custom artwork” despite a prohibition of such purchases with forfeiture funds. Forfeiture funds “should not be treated as a slush fund for extravagances,” Grassley said.

And Grassley’s letter coincides with other forfeiture abuses coming to light in recent weeks. Over the weekend, a U.C. Berkley police officer seized $60 from a hot dog vendor for not having the appropriate permits. Last week, we learned that a Tennessee Department of Safety & Homeland Security improperly spent over $100,000 in forfeiture funds on catering and banquet tickets. Today the Institute for Justice announced it is suing U.S. Customs and Border Protection for the indefinite detention of a truck seized at a border crossing.

Enough is enough, so we are excited that the Congress has taken action this week to rein in civil forfeiture. We need to make sure that the Senate follows the House’s lead and keeps the forfeiture amendments in any final spending bill.

Congress needs to hear from you.

During last night’s debate, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) stated action must be taken when “the liberals and the conservatives come together and agree on libertarian principles.”

We couldn’t agree more.

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