Did you know that the United State Department of "Justice" seizes $500 million from Americans each year? Did you know that 80 percent of the people whose property is forfeited by DOJ and other agencies are NEVER EVEN CHARGED WITH A CRIME? Did you know the government can take your property even if you are completely innocent, unless you prove that no one used your property illegally, even without your knowledge?
The extent to which property rights have been gutted by civil asset forfeiture is so outrageous that even many reform advocates have trouble believing it. But the "Dear Colleague" letter attached below, sent by Reps. Hyde, Conyers, Barr and Frank, introducing the "Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 1997" to all the Representatives of Congress, uses the word "unbelievable" to describe the current state of asset forfeiture law. H.R. 1835 is a truly bipartisan effort at meaningful reform.
We've been informed that tomorrow, Wednesday June 18, the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on H.R. 1835. The bill has an excellent chance of passage, but the U.S. Department of Justice (often known as the Department of Injustice) is working furiously to get H.R. 1835 watered down and neutralize the important reforms it would make.
The Department of Justice is addicted to forfeiture money. Just as friends sometimes intervene to help their friends deal with destructive addictions, it's our duty as citizens to help our government break its harmful addiction to civil asset forfeiture.
Please contact the Judiciary Committee today, at (202) 225- 3951 (phone) or (202) 225-7682 (fax), and ask them to pass H.R. 1835 AS ORIGINALLY INTRODUCED. Also please ask your own Representative to co-sponsor and vote for H.R. 1835. You can reach your rep (or find out who your rep is) through the Congressional Switchboard at (202) 225-3121. (If you get this message too late, please call anyway. These votes are sometimes postponed, and it will only help for later in the process.)
More information on H.R. 1835 is available on the web site of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, http://www.criminaljustice.org. The full text of H.R. 1835, along with general info on floor action and co- sponsors, can be found at http://thomas.loc.gov by searching under 105th Congress. General information on asset forfeiture is available from Forfeiture Endangers American Rights, http://www.fear.org. We learned about tomorrow's vote from the Marijuana Policy Project, http://www.mpp.org.
The following is the "Dear Colleague" letter sent by the bill's sponsors:
U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary One Hundred Fifth Congress
CO-SPONSOR BI-PARTISAN ASSET FORFEITURE REFORM
Over the last decade, our two-century old civil asset forfeiture laws have been recruited in the war against crime. The federal government is taking hundreds of millions of dollars a year in proceeds from cash and property used in criminal activities. Unfortunately, it has become all too apparent in recent years that these civil asset forfeiture laws are sometimes being used in terribly unjust ways, depriving innocent citizens of their property without basic due process. Believe it or not, Federal officials have the power to seize your home, your car, your business and your bank account -- all without indictment, hearing or trial.
Imagine this. You make the mistake of buying an airplane ticket with cash -- behavior that is deemed to fit a drug courier profile -- so you are detained and searched. No drugs are found, but the agents seize the cash in your wallet, saying they have "probable cause" to believe that the money was intended to buy drugs. You are allowed to leave and are not charged with any crime, but the agents keep your property.
What recourse do you have to get your property back? Very little, because the law treats the property, rather than you, as the offending object. None of the Constitutional or procedural safeguards of the criminal law are available, because you are not being threatened with a deprivation of liberty. In fact, the law doesn't require that you ever be charged with a crime. Instead of the government having to prove that it had "probable cause" to believe that your seized property was being used in connection with a crime it is up to you to prove that it did not. Your only other hope is to prove that your property was 'innocent' of its alleged connection with a crime. But the alleged criminal conduct needn't even involve you -- it could just as easily be a crime allegedly committed by the previous owner of your property, or by someone who, unbeknown to you, is using your property in a criminal endeavor.
And if this weren't bad enough, you must provide a 10% bond for the privilege of even contesting the government's seizure. Don't expect to have an attorney provided to help you if you are indigent, but familiarize yourself with the legal procedure quickly -- you only have 10 days to file your claim. Even assuming you somehow prevail, the government is not liable for any interest on your money, or in the case of seized property, any damage caused by its handling or storage.
As unbelievable as this all seems, this is now the law! And with the government's interest in increasing available funds, there is little incentive for law enforcement officials to refrain voluntarily from vigorously exploiting this tool. It is incumbent on the Congress to reform the system to make it consistent with the basic presumption in American law -- that you are innocent until proven guilty, and that you should not lose your property without due process of law.
To this end, we will soon be introducing the "Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act." It puts the burden of proof back where it belongs -- on the government. And it requires the government to prove its case by clear and convincing evidence. It also provides indigent defendants with appointed counsel, allows property owners who take reasonable steps to prevent others from using their property in criminal activity to get their property back, eliminates the cost bond requirement, provides compensation for damage caused to the property, extends the time for filing of a claim, and sets a time certain for the government to commence a judicial proceeding.
Civil asset forfeiture reform is supported by the national Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Institute for Justice, and the American Civil Liberties Union. If you would like to be a co-sponsor, or if you would like more information, please call Judiciary Committee counsel Diana Schacht at extension S3951.
HENRY J. HYDE
JOHN CONYERS, JR.
Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property
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