During Subcommittee Hearing, Chairman Raskin Calls on Congress to Pass Bipartisan FAIR Act to Reform Nation’s Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws
Washington, D.C. (December 8, 2021)—Today, Rep. Jamie Raskin, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, held a hearing to examine the need to reform the nation’s civil asset forfeiture laws and to prevent state, local, and federal law enforcement from abusing the civil rights and civil liberties of Americans.
“The state is just seizing the property,” Chairman Raskin said when describing the current state of civil asset forfeiture in his opening statement. “Law enforcement agents can seize and forfeit assets of innocent third-party owners even if the person whose property is being seized had no knowledge that their property was being allegedly used in connection to a suspected crime. Under this system, a grandmother’s car or a parent’s apartment can be seized if police suspect the grandchild or child of possessing drugs or committing some other kind of criminal offense on the property. That is an outrageous breach of the most basic concepts of civil justice and due process and property rights.”
The Subcommittee heard testimony from Aamra Ahmad, Senior Policy Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union; Daniel Alban, Senior Attorney and Co-Director of the National Initiative to End Forfeiture Abuse at the Institute for Justice; Louis S. Rulli, Practice Professor of Law and Director of the Civil Practice Clinic & Legislative Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School; and Malinda Harris, a victim of civil asset forfeiture from Springfield, Massachusetts.
Members from both parties and witnesses emphasized the dire need to reform civil asset forfeiture programs to protect individuals, especially those in low-income communities and communities of color, from having their assets seized by law enforcement.
- Ms. Ahmad, responding to an inquiry from Rep. Norton, explained how the disparate impact of civil asset forfeiture on communities of color relates to the practice’s historical roots: “The War on Drugs is what’s fueling the asset forfeiture process—it is seen as a tool to fight the drug war. But many of the tools that are used in the drug war have been unsuccessful and ineffective and they have a trend of disparately impacting communities of color and also poor communities.” She continued, “We need oversight, and we need accountability, and we need transparency.”
- Professor Rulli also stressed the need to connect civil asset forfeiture to greater issues of police reform. “We cannot separate civil forfeiture from criminal justice reform that is ongoing, and there is a direct relationship here that we need to examine,” he said. Later, he added, “In minority communities, many families are unbanked or underbanked, meaning that they are carrying cash because that is the way that they are able to deal with the various needs that they may have. And so, the suspicion that the mere carrying of cash is somehow illegal or related to drugs is a fundamental issue that is targeted, really, in low-income and minority communities.”
- In response to a question from Rep. Pressley, Ms. Harris discussed what it meant to her to get her car back after it was taken through civil forfeiture. “It was tremendous. It was uplifting.” She added, “in our community sometimes, it’s just really hard to see that the law works for us. To get that car, it let my granddaughters know that we are included in this system, and it does work for us when people treat us fairly and work it. She was able to see that the law does work when somebody puts in the effort to make it happen. That was something—that was big for us.”
Witnesses explained how federal equitable sharing programs allow state and local law enforcement to circumvent state reforms that limit their ability to seize assets from people who have not been charged with crimes.
- Mr. Alban said in his testimony, “By enabling state and local law enforcement to ‘partner’ with federal law enforcement on forfeitures in exchange for a ‘cut’ of the proceeds, equitable sharing enables them to evade any restrictions their state legislatures have imposed on civil forfeiture—including, for example, higher burdens of proof under state law or requirements sending all forfeiture proceeds to the state treasury, as is the practice in several states.”
- Later, in response to an inquiry from Rep. Wasserman-Schultz regarding the role law enforcement plays in opposing asset forfeiture reform efforts, Mr. Alban explained, “The dirty little secret of forfeiture reform is the only entity opposed to forfeiture reform is law enforcement.” He added that forfeiture reform efforts across the country are “always bipartisan, they are always supported nearly unanimously and yet law enforcement opposes these reform efforts because they view it as taking money out of their pockets.”
Members highlighted the urgency for Congress to pass the bipartisan Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act, introduced by Chairman Raskin and Rep. Tim Wahlberg (R-MI), which would implement sweeping reforms for the nation’s federal civil forfeiture laws.
- Chairman Raskin, in his closing, made a passionate case for the passage of the FAIR Act, saying, “The government has got to prove by clear and convincing evidence that your property is guilty in connection with a crime, either the proceeds of the crime or the instrument of making the crime happen, rather than you having to go and prove that it’s innocent. We want to increase transparency around the whole process, and we want to dramatically restrict the use of the equitable sharing agreements between DOJ and local and state law enforcement. I hope this is something we can move in this session of Congress. We can get it done on a bipartisan basis.”
- In a show of bipartisan support, Ranking Member Mace pledged to sign onto the FAIR Act, saying, “you can add one more Republican to that great bipartisan bill.” At the close of the hearing, she added, “It’s past time that we work together—it's quite an achievement and shows that this is necessary, very much needed, past time to work together on this. There’s something really wrong with this issue and Congress is finally, I feel like, doing something about it.”