House Committee Approves Bill to Protect Private Property From Gov’t. Seizure

By Jeannette Richard | May 31, 2016 | 4:27pm EDT
Markela and Chris Sourovelis, whose suburban Philadephia home was seized by law enforcement in 2014 after their son was charged with a drug crime. (AP photo)


( -- A bill introduced by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) to protect citizens’ private property from seizure by law enforcement officials without “clear and convincing evidence” that it was used to commit a crime was approved by the House Judiciary Committee last week by a voice vote.

The bill “raises the standard of proof law enforcement must show before depriving an individual of his or her property, increases accountability and oversight of seizures and forfeitures, and strengthens protections for Americans whose property has been seized by law enforcement agencies,” according to the committee’s website.

The bill, known as the Due Process Act, is part of the committee’s Criminal Justice Reform Initiative, a bipartisan effort that includes seven other bills approved by the committee in the past year, including the Criminal Code Improvement Act of 2015, which would protect individuals and businesses who commit unintentional violations of the Code, and the Sentencing Reform Act, which would lower the minimum sentences for small drug offences.

Section 9 of the Due Process Act would amend Section 983 of Title 18 of the United States Code to read:

“If the Government’s theory of forfeiture is that the property was used to commit or facilitate the commission of a criminal offense, or was involved in the commission of a criminal offense, the Government shall establish by clear and convincing evidence that—(A) there was a substantial connection between the property and the offense; and (B) the owner of any interest in the seized property— (i) intentionally used the property in connection with the offense; (ii) knowingly consented to the use of the property by another in connection with the offense; or (iii) should have reasonably known that the property was being used in connection with the offense.”

“Our criminal justice system is failing Americans and is in desperate need of reform,” noted Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), one the co-sponsors of the bill, which has bipartisan support.

“Nowhere is that more apparent than in our broken civil forfeiture laws which have allowed law enforcement to make a habit of seizing property from innocent Americans without sufficient proof of wrongdoing.

“I’m pleased the House Judiciary Committee was able to move swiftly on this bill, which I introduced with my colleagues last week. The bill will strengthen due process, increase transparency and accountability of law enforcement, and help curb abuse of this tool. I look forward to continuing to work on civil justice reform and am hopeful to see the bill pass the full House in short order,” Issa added.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “the Department of Justice Asset Forfeiture Program encompasses the seizure and forfeiture of assets that represent the proceeds of, or were used to facilitate federal crimes.”

For civil asset forfeiture, no criminal conviction of the property owner is necessary, since the property itself is considered the defendant in the case, according to DOJ.

“[This vote] takes us one step closer to remedying some of the outrageous injustices of civil forfeiture,” said Darpana Sheth, attorney for the Institute of Justice, a non-profit law firm dedicated to protecting the individual freedom of citizens.

“Every day, innocent Americans have their hard-earned savings, cars, businesses, and even their homes, taken without ever being charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one.”

Sheth testified before the committee last year about government abuses involving civil forfeiture.

“Federal laws financially incentivize forfeiture of property from innocent Americans without providing adequate procedural safeguards,” Sheth testified. “This toxic mix has led to widespread abuse.”

Related: Holder Announces Changes to Asset Forfeiture Program

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