Congress is set to consider a bill on civil asset seizures by US police and prosecutors, and it could be a first step toward dismantling the controversial practice.
In the days leading up to the bill’s passage, the ACLU, which has been pushing for reforms for years, pushed for a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers to create the “Civil Asset Forfeiture Prevention Act of 2017.”
The bill would end asset forfeiture entirely, and allow a court to order the forfeiture of assets seized in the course of criminal investigations.
It would also create a process for police departments to request and receive forfeiture money, which would be sent to local police departments.
Under current law, federal prosecutors can use asset forfeiture money to finance law enforcement.
But under the legislation, police would have to make a case for the use of forfeiture money before it is used to fund law enforcement operations.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), comes as the Department of Justice (DOJ) is investigating police departments in several cities and states for allegedly violating civil asset seizure laws.
Last month, a federal judge ordered the Albuquerque Police Department to pay $9.8 million in civil asset fees, in a case that has also drawn attention to civil asset confiscations by other US law enforcement agencies.
“The bill is overdue, and I believe it will help to restore trust in the process and give law enforcement more transparency into their forfeitures, as well as provide the public with information about the seizure process,” Ellison said in a statement on the bill, which he introduced.
“We cannot let police officers and prosecutors continue to take advantage of this dangerous system and abuse their power.”
The bill has also been supported by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and several civil rights groups.
“The ACLU applauds this bipartisan effort to end civil asset theft, which undermines the integrity of our criminal justice system, and gives the American public access to information about how police and private companies use the money they take from them to fund their criminal investigations,” said Amanda Miller, an ACLU policy analyst.
“This legislation will give police and federal prosecutors a fair hearing and will help protect civil rights and civil liberties by eliminating this dangerous practice that undermines public safety.”
The ACLU also welcomed the bill as a step toward ending asset forfeiture in general.
“Today’s bipartisan bill represents a historic step in ending civil asset abuse, but it also provides the federal government with a strong framework to help police and other law enforcement officers pursue the cases that warrant their seizures,” Miller said.
“The civil asset recovery system has long been abused, and Congress must make a commitment to reform it.”
The House passed the bill on Tuesday, and its prospects for passage will be tested by an unlikely ally: the ACLU.
The civil rights group announced last month that it would launch a campaign to defeat the bill in the Senate, where it has a 50-seat majority.
Democrats have been reluctant to take up civil asset rights legislation, citing concerns that it could violate the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.