Bill to reform taking assets by forfeiture passed by House committee

June 15, 2023

Chuck Robinson


A bill to reform forfeiture laws by which money and other assets can be seized and kept by state or federal government passed out of the House Judiciary Committee on June 14.

Now the bill waits to be put on the calendar for debate on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act was introduced in March by Reps. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and Tim Walberg, R-Mich. There are eight other sponsors, three Republicans and five Democrats. It passed out of committee by a vote of 26-0.

This is the second time around for the FAIR Act. In 2017, bills with the same name to rein-in civil asset forfeiture were introduced by Walhberg in the House of Representatives, who introduced it again this year, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., in the Senate. No action was taken on the 2017 bills.

Between the rounds of legislation being introduced, in 2019 the U.S. addressed civil asset forfeiture. It did not prohibit it, but the court ruled in Timbs v. Indiana that state seizure and keeping property was in effect a fine and the amount could not be excessive.

More recently, the Supreme Court this spring agreed to hear the case of two Alabama women whose vehicles were taken by the state even though they were not involved in a crime. In one case, a son was driving the car when he was stopped arrested for marijuana possession. In the other, a friend was drivng the woman’s car. The friend was pulled over and arrested for meth possession.

‘Lawless seizure and forfeiture’

The Fifth Amendment has a guarantee that the government cannot seize property without fair compensation. It also decrees a right to a fair trial and protects against forced self-incrimination.

“It’s been far too easy for the government to seize a private citizen’s property, in some cases even without criminal charges being brought,” Walberg said in a March announcement of introducing the legislation. “The FAIR Act brings important reforms to limit government overreach and restores constitutional rights.”

Lead co-sponsor Raskin railed against the “lawless seizure and ‘forfeiture’ of people’s private property by police officers,” which he said was becoming standard operation procedure in many parts of the county.

“We want to restore the presumption of innocence, fair judicial process, and the opportunity to be heard,” Raskin said in the announcement.

The nonprofit law firm Institute for Justice applauded the re-introduction of the FAIR Act.

The Institute for Justice has helped people, including some truck drivers, try to get back money seized by law enforcement authorities. One case was a long-drawn-out battle that ended in the driver getting his money back. Another case, in Texas, went before a jury, and the man requesting to get his seized money back was denied.

The nonprofit law firm also has lobbied for forfeiture laws to be changed.

“Civil forfeiture reform is long overdue. It is heartening to see some real progress toward protecting Americans’ property rights,” Institute for Justice senior attorney Dan Alban said in a news release. He heads the institute’s National Initiative to End Forfeiture Abuse. “We hope that today’s strong showing of bipartisan support prompts leaders to quickly move this bill through the full House and then the Senate.”

Changes proposed in 2023

The proposed changes are far-reaching.

The FAIR Act, HR 1525, would deny law enforcement agencies the opportunity to profit from seizing and taking money through civil asset forfeiture. It requires all money from forfeited assets to go to the Treasury Department instead.

It also would end the “equitable sharing” program that lets state law enforcement agencies sidestep any state law restricting forfeiture by having federal agencies take over.

Administrative forfeiture would be stopped by the FAIR Act requiring forfeiture cases to be heard in federal court.

The bill also would require the government agency seizing money or other assets to determine the person or party that owns the assets within seven days of the seizure. On top of that, the interested party must be notified of the government’s intent within seven days after the interested party’s identity and address are determined. Presently, months and years can pass before an interested party is identified.

It further provides for the court to appoint counsel to represent people whose money has been seized.

The level of evidence required to take and keep assets also would be raised by the FAIR Act, from “a preponderance of evidence” (i.e, more probable than not) to “clear and convincing evidence” (substantially more probable than the other level).

The text of the FAIR Act is available here. LL