July of 1999, the U.S. House passed the Asset Forfeiture Reform Act (AFRA), a bill which would curtail the power of law enforcement to seize property that has been associated with crime and forfeit it to the government, frequently to their own police organizations.
As noted by Paul Reed on the website About.com, the support for the bill in Congress (375 to 48 against) reflects widespread disapproval of the way the current law is being enforced.
Civil forfeiture became a widespread practice in the 1980s, during the War on Drugs as the government began to seize property and forfeited it to the government in a civil action which was prosecuted and adjudicated by law enforcement, independent of any filing or conviction. The tortured legal rationale for this was that the property itself was guilty. The law has become a big money maker for law enforcement. Some agencies even went to the lengths of establishing special units to pursue crimes that involved large property interests.
Interestingly enough, the Clinton administration had supported an alternative bill which would have lowered the burden of proof in these civil cases, thus making civil forfeitures easier rather than more difficult.
Reed, Paul (1999) Drug Warriors Blink: Civil Forfeiture Amendments Moving in Congress. About.com
CIVIL ASSET FORFEITURE REFORM: From the Drug Policy Foundation
What is Civil Asset Forfeiture?
Civil asset forfeiture laws (as opposed to criminal forfeiture laws) allow police to seize property -- without charging the owner with any crime -- if the police believe the property is in any way linked to illegal activity. In another words, the property is considered "guilty" by the police and is confiscated on the spot. Not only does the civil law make it easier for police to take property this way, but civil forfeiture places the burden of proof on the owner. Furthermore, civil forfeiture laws do not compensate the owner for any damage or loss, even if a court orders the police to return the property.
Although forfeiture is an ancient practice, civil forfeiture has been revived and aggressively expanded by the federal government as a means of fighting the war on drugs. In 1984, Congress allowed most federal law enforcement agencies to keep what they seize, which led to a dramatic increase in the number of seizures.
The Drug Policy Foundation opposes the use of civil forfeiture, especially since police have had criminal forfeiture authority to prevent criminals from keeping ill-gotten gains. At the federal level, the best chance for reform has been put forward in the House of Representatives by a coalition headed by Rep. Henry Hyde (see below).
Information Available from DPF and Others.
Below are a variety of materials you can use to learn more.
DPF's Civil Asset Forfeiture Fact Sheet (1999)
DPF's Policy Briefing: Asset Forfeiture (released May 1999). This 16-page booklet will give you the facts and figures on how asset forfeiture works, what laws and court cases have shaped asset forfeiture, how much property is forfeited, problems with civil asset forfeiture, and how it needs to be reformed. The Policy Briefing also includes a resource guide that you can use to get involved in civil forfeiture reform.
Available in PDF format (size: 1.9 mb)
Support for H.R. 1658, the "Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act" On May 4, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) introduced H.R. 1658, which would seriously curtail federal civil asset forfeitures. Despite an attempt to amend and water down the Hyde bill, the House of Representatives approved.
Hyde's bill passed intact 375-48 on June 24, one of the few times that representatives have agreed that the government can go too far in fighting the drug war. Now the Senate must consider the issue. Here are DPF's press releases and other information on H.R. 1658:
Two Noteworthy Books on Civil Asset Forfeiture (available from the DPF Store):