Senate Panel Approves Asset Forfeiture Reform

March 23, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — A Senate panel today unanimously approved a measure that would help return the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” as the standard of our country’s justice system.

“Confiscating personal property without ever proving wrongdoing is what most of us expect from dictatorships, not from the country that is supposed to be a world leader in justice and democracy,” said Rachel King, a Legislative Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Yet the nation’s misguided — and much abused — civil asset forfeiture laws allow the government to confiscate property from innocent owners who are never even charged with a crime.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill (S.1931) that would reform the laws’ worst abuses. The measure now heads to the Senate floor. A similar measure was passed with overwhelming approval in a House vote of 375 to 48 in late June.

“Allowing law enforcement authorities to take away a vehicle or a home without so much as a hearing or the right to a lawyer flies in the face of American values,” King said. “Yet that is exactly what is happening across our country every day.”

The reform measure before the Senate is sponsored by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and is supported by individuals and organizations from across the ideological spectrum, including the Chamber of Commerce and the NRA. Others supporting the bill include former high-ranking Republicans like Robert Bork, Ed Meese, Dick Thornburg and three former Democratic Attorneys General.

While the ACLU supports the bill as an important first step, it noted that the House bill, sponsored by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL), has stronger reforms. The Hyde bill places a higher burden of proof for the government to keep seized property and provides more comprehensive access to a lawyer to people whose property is seized.

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