Senate Hearing Underscores Critical Need for Asset Forfeiture Reform

Justice Reform 04.17,15

On April 15, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the need to reform civil asset forfeiture, a legal tool that has allowed law enforcement to seize $2.5 billion in cash from nearly 62,000 people without warrants or indictments since 2001.

Current federal asset forfeiture law allows law enforcement to seize cars, cash, and other property suspected of being connected to criminal activity, regardless of whether the property owner is guilty or innocent. Property owners who have their assets seized bear the burden and costs of demonstrating their innocence, and are not entitled to a lawyer. In addition, these laws are particularly harmful to low-income communities and communities of color. An investigative series of articles by The Washington Post chronicling the issue of civil asset forfeiture found that “of the 400 court cases examined by The Post where people who challenged seizures and received some money back, the majority were black, Hispanic or another minority.”

During the committee hearing, former motel owner Russ Caswell told the story of his experience with asset forfeiture. Caswell shared with the committee that he had always strived to keep his family-owned motel a safe place. However, as Caswell and his wife were preparing to retire in September 2009, they learned that their motel was subject to civil forfeiture because police believed that the motel had facilitated drug activity. For the next three years, Caswell fought a costly legal battle to prove that he was an innocent owner and to keep his motel.

Other witnesses who testified at the hearing included Sen. Rand Paul, R. Ky., Darpena Sheth, Jonathan Bach, and Chuck Canterbury, who serves as the national president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Sheth, an attorney with the Institute of Justice, highlighted the problems with equitable sharing programs, which incentivize asset forfeitures by allowing police to keep the proceeds of their seizures. “Giving law enforcement a direct financial interest in the seizure of property violates a central command of due process. The administration of justice must be impartial,” Sheth said.

In advance of the hearing, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights sent a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R. Iowa, and Ranking Member Patrick Leahy, D. Vt., urging them to support effective and comprehensive civil asset forfeiture reform. The Leadership Conference’s recommendations for reform include:

  • Eliminating profit incentives driving forfeiture by ending state and local equitable sharing programs
  • Directing forfeiture proceeds toward programs that do not perpetuate improper forfeiture-related incentives.
  • Applying the right to an attorney in all civil asset forfeiture proceedings
  • Establishing protections for innocent business owners subjected to forfeiture

You can watch a recording of the hearing and read the witnesses’ testimony here.