Amid popular calls for policing reform, a handful of senators are resurrecting a bill to make it harder for police to take people’s property without first convicting them of crimes.
Sens. Rand Paul (R–Ky.), Mike Lee (R–Utah), Mike Crapo (R–Idaho), and Angus King (I–Maine) reintroduced the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act this week to significantly restrain the federal use of civil asset forfeiture, a practice that lets police and prosecutors seize and keep property they claim are associated with criminal activity.
Because the process is “civil,” it often allows police to do this without ever proving the property owner has committed a crime, or even charging them with criminal action. Those facing the forfeiture process often have to pay for their own lawyers (if they can afford lawyers, what with their assets being seized) and face a complex bureaucratic process stacked against them. This was sold as a way to fight drug cartels, but over the past several decades it has become clear that cops are abusing the process to pad their budgets and payrolls. Instead of drug kingpins, the targets are frequently poorer people, often minorities or immigrants, who lacked the financial resources to fight back when police took their property. Law enforcement agencies have raked in more than $35 billion in this way over the last two decades.
Several states have tried to curtail abuses by imposing their own restrictions on forfeitures, but the federal Department of Justice’s programs can be used to bypass state-level restraints. The Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing program allows local law enforcement agencies to team up with the FBI or Drug Enforcement Administration to do a raid, then launder the assets they seize through the feds and keep much of it.
The FAIR Act would eliminate such “equitable” sharing, forcing law enforcement agencies to comply with state-level restrictions on forfeiture. It also increases the evidentiary threshold for forfeiture, requiring “clear and convincing evidence” that the property to be seized is connected to a crime, compared to the current, much looser standard or a “preponderance of the evidence.” It’s still not the same “beyond a reasonable doubt” threshold to get a conviction, but it’s nevertheless an improvement.
The bill would also make sure that people subjected to federal forfeitures would receive appointed counsel if they need it. And it would reduce the profit motive to engage in forfeiture by directing the money seized in this way to the Treasury’s General Fund, to be distributed by Congress rather than be sent directly to law enforcement agencies.
“The federal government has made it far too easy for government agencies to take and profit from the property of those who have not been convicted of a crime,” Paul said in a prepared statement. “The FAIR Act will uphold the Fifth Amendment and ensure government agencies no longer profit from taking American citizens’ property without due process. It will guard against abuse while maintaining the ability of courts to order the surrender of proceeds of crime.”
Paul attempted to get this bill passed back in 2014, but it languished at the Senate Judiciary Committee. Rep. Tim Walberg (R–Mich.) has sponsored the House version, which has attracted co-sponsors from both major parties, but it has also been stuck in committee since May 2019.
This time Paul says he’ll be attempting to attach the FAIR Act as an amendment to any police reform bill the Senate might consider. Unfortunately, it’s not clear that the Senate will actually be considering any of them. Senate Democrats refused to support a Republican-sponsored bill organized by Sen. Tim Scott (R–S.C.) because it didn’t go far enough for them. Meanwhile, the bill Democrats pushed through the House last night included a provision that would strip officers of qualified immunity, an idea that Senate Republicans don’t want to consider.
So ultimately there may not be anything for Paul to actually attach the FAIR Act to. We’ll have to see.