Q&A: Civil Asset Forfeiture
With U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley
Q: What is civil asset forfeiture?
A: Civil asset forfeiture laws empower the government to seize property linked to prohibited behavior and criminal enterprise. In the earliest days of our republic, Congress first enacted forfeiture laws as a tool to target and enforce customs violations on the high seas and later expanded them to enforce Prohibition laws. Congress has enacted updates over the years to strengthen the ability of law enforcement to detect, thwart, investigate and prosecute organized crime, from drug cartels to human trafficking rings and terrorist networks. Seizing ill-gotten financial assets enables law enforcement to put the brakes on criminal profits that underwrite crime and violence in society. Drying up this funding stream helps save lives and protect public safety. In recent years, however, legitimate constitutional concerns call into question the misuse of forfeiture programs across the country. Changes to the program now allow law enforcement agencies and the IRS to keep proceeds from seized assets. This arguably has created a perverse incentive, expanding the program’s intent from a tool to seize criminal assets to stop crime to a tool that generates resources to flow into forfeiture funds. Previously, seized assets were deposited into the general treasury. Now law enforcement agencies may be enticed to seize private property, cash and vehicles to supplement their own resources. When used effectively and appropriately, asset seizure and forfeiture laws can recoup criminal profits that deter criminal activity and compensate victims of crime.
As with most any government program, asset forfeiture’s reach into the daily lives of Americans is susceptible to mission creep. In the previous decade, forfeitures by the Department of Justice have reached $28 billion. Oversight is essential to keep intact the integrity of seizure and forfeiture laws.
When used without fidelity to due process, these laws may undermine the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens. Putting the burden of proof on law-abiding citizens to demonstrate that their seized assets have no link to criminal activity puts at risk constitutional protections for freedom, liberty and personal property .
Q: Are you concerned about the Justice Department’s restoring a provision known as equitable sharing of seized assets between the federal government and state and local law enforcement?
A: Congressional oversight serves a crucial role in our system of checks and balances. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which has legislative and oversight jurisdiction of the Justice Department and the federal courts, I will continue scrutiny of this program to prevent misconduct and abuse. The government’s responsibilities to protect public safety and national sovereignty must square with the fundamental constitutional rights of American citizens. Over the years, the reach of civil asset forfeiture grew considerably under the equitable sharing program, which allows local and state agencies to partner with the federal government to seize assets whenever the conduct giving rise to the seizure violates federal law, even if state law might otherwise limit civil asset forfeiture. A successful forfeiture allowed the local agency to keep up to 80 percent of seized assets. As such, the program became very important to the budgets and bottom lines of local law enforcement across the country. Because of this, many legislators share legitimate concerns about this program and wish to ensure the practices and policies of this program do not distort the intent of this law enforcement tool. It is intended to help flush out criminal activity and make victims whole, not flesh out law enforcement budgets. That’s why I will remain vigilant to protect due process rights and work to ensure that the seizure and forfeiture of property are conducted within constitutional boundaries. Law enforcement officers, from FBI agents to local police officers, report to work every day to protect and serve the public. They put themselves in harm’s way to protect law-abiding citizens. They need the proper tools to fight money laundering, drug trafficking and criminal violence in society. However, seizing illicit profits and assets of criminal enterprises ought to be implemented to dismantle illicit funding streams and to protect public safety, not to replenish budgets at the expense of mom-and-pop shops and law-abiding citizens.