A pair of amendments approved by the House of Representatives would reinstate 2015 protections curtailing the ability of law enforcement to seize assets of criminal suspects and ending funding to carry out such seizures at the federal level.
This unexpected move may seem to be little more than legislative minutiae. But the message this action has sent — particularly its overwhelming passage, sparked by the union of very conservative Republicans and very liberal Democrats — highlights growing, merited concerns about the federal asset seizure program.
Obviously, the amendments carry no legislative weight unless and until they’re approved by the House and Senate in the final version of the appropriations bill and signed into law. But it’s clear that protecting the due process rights of Americans that are guaranteed in the Constitution is a civil liberties issue endorsed by increasing numbers of Republicans and Democrats alike.
In July, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reinstated the old practice that had been restricted by his predecessor, Eric Holder, to allow law enforcement to claim the assets of suspects — even those who will never be formally charged — if there’s probable cause a crime was committed and later profit off them under civil standards far more lenient than criminal statutes.
Nebraska has taken an admirable stance in becoming one of the champions of reforming forfeiture and protecting the civil liberties against potential overreach and abuse.
Last year, the Legislature banned permanent seizure of assets without a criminal conviction — the proper balance of maintaining the rights of innocence until a suspect is found guilty in a court of law. Furthermore, it restricted when the civil forfeiture process could be deployed.
As common sense as Nebraska’s standard should be everywhere, it’s regrettably uncommon. Only about half of states have any protections — with few as strong as Nebraska’s — against asset forfeiture beyond the low bar at the federal level, one Sessions dropped even further, allowing state law to be overridden under the more permissive federal process.
Protections for private property and against unreasonable searches and seizures were fresh in the mind of the Founding Fathers as they drafted the Bill of Rights.
They recalled the abuse of power by the British crown. The forced quartering of soldiers in homes and warrantless searches executed by those same troops were scars left by a government that had exceeded its authority, which they never again wanted to see in America.
Policing for profit is a modern-day evolution, with a federal government that’s created the possibility for abuse by overeager actors. Though the House’s actions were a small step to counter this, lawmakers stood strongly behind the property and due process rights granted to all Americans in the face of government overreach.