At the May 3 Cato Institute conference, “Forfeiture Reform: Now, or Never?” Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R‐Ill.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, announced that he was introducing the Civil Asset Forfeiture Act of 1999.
In his keynote address, Hyde built on the introductory remarks of conference director Roger Pilon in setting forth the details of his bill, which had first been discussed in his 1995 Cato book, Forfeiting Our Property Rights: Is Your Property Safe from Seizure? Hyde said that modern forfeiture laws were originally directed at drug dealers. Now, however, they are routinely used to confiscate the property of innocent citizens. Among other things, Hyde’s bill would shift the burden of proof to the government. Today, government seizes property believed simply to have been “involved” in crime, and the owner, where permitted, must prove the property’s innocence. The owner is often never even charged with a crime.
The roots of forfeiture stretch back to antiquity and to early American customs law, said E. E. (Bo) Edwards and Samuel J. Buffone, cochairmen of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Forfeiture Abuse Task Force. But during Prohibition the use of forfeiture increased, and, more recently, with the War on Drugs, its use has exploded. Today its use reaches well beyond the drug war. People involved in ordinary businesses and professions have had theirs cars, homes, bank accounts, and businesses seized simply because the property was suspected of “facilitating” a crime. And the police get to keep the assets, which only encourages further seizures.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg argued that many forfeiture abuses have been eradicated. Stefan Cassella, who heads the Justice Department’s Asset and Money Laundering Section, said that property is forfeited so the user won’t be able to commit further crimes with it. He also defended the law because it enables the government to reach property used by someone other than the owner to commit a crime.
James H. Warner of the National Rifle Association drew on the early history of forfeiture and Ira Glasser of the American Civil Liberties Union looked at recent constitutional theory in arguing that modern forfeiture law has no place in a free society governed by the rule of law. Shortly after the conference, Hyde’s bill passed out of the House Judiciary Committee by a vote of 27 to 3.
The conference, broadcast live on the World Wide Web, is available for viewing online along with other Cato programs. Excerpts from the remarks made by Hyde are also available on the May edition of CatoAudio.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 1999 edition of Cato Policy Report.