Sen. Rand Paul has long taken the lead in calling for the reform of civil asset forfeiture laws, a controversial police practice in which authorities basically steal the property of citizens without due process and little recourse. Billions have been seized from citizens by the police based on nothing more than suspicion, which many see as a direct violation of the Fifth Amendment.
On Thursday, Sen. Paul reintroduced FAIR (Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration) Act, which specifically addresses victims of civil asset forfeiture who have not been convicted of a crime.
“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’s statement read. “The FAIR Act will protect Americans’ Fifth Amendment rights from being infringed upon by ensuring that government agencies no longer profit from taking the property of U.S. citizens without due process.”
The House companion FAIR legislation is being introduced by Republican Rep. Tim Walberg of Michigan.
Some have observed that if implemented, this legislation could be the most significant reform in decades. Heritage Foundation policy analyst Jason Snead writes at The Hill, “The bill, if passed, would be the most sweeping reform of abuse-prone federal civil forfeiture law since the 1980s.”
Back then, Congress turned to civil forfeiture laws to empower law enforcement authorities to seize and forfeit the ill-gotten gains of drug kingpins, criminal organizations, and money launderers, as well as the property they used to commit their crimes. To encourage the use of this newly enhanced tool, Congress created the Assets Forfeiture Fund and allowed federal law enforcement agencies to keep the proceeds of successful forfeitures.
The result? An exponential increase in forfeiture activities. In 1985, the first year the fund existed, it brought in just $27 million. In 2012, the value of forfeited assets was $4.3 billion. Today, more than 400 federal laws authorize the seizure of cash, cars, and homes for a range of alleged offenses, and allow forfeiture proceeds to be divided with state and local agencies through Equitable Sharing programs administered by the Treasury and Justice Departments.
The issue of criminal justice reform is not new, but receiving popular support is a fairly recent trend. Both right and left, Republicans and Democrats, have been instrumental in raising awareness at both the local and national level.
“Paul and Walberg first introduced the FAIR Act in 2014,” Snead writes. “At the time, civil forfeiture was something few people had heard of, and there appeared to be little appetite for reform.”
“But in the years since, dozens of state legislatures have reined in their abuse-prone forfeiture statutes, and last year Congress advanced several forfeiture-reform bills, though none has yet made it to the president’s desk,” he added.
Some criticized Paul’s vote to confirm President Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions in February precisely because Sessions has been outspoken in opposing reform to civil asset forfeiture. Paul noted that any other appointment to that post would likely have the same positions on this issue, and also that as a senate colleague he felt he could try to change Sessions’ mind, something that would be more difficult with an Attorney General with whom Paul had no prior relationship.
Nor are Paul’s mind-changing efforts limited to Sessions.
“There was a discussion the other day in the White House about civil asset forfeiture,” Paul said in February. “I think civil asset forfeiture is a terrible idea until you’ve convicted someone, and I’d like to have that discussion with the president,” the senator added.
Disclosure: I co-authored the 2011 book The Tea Party Goes to Washington with Sen. Rand Paul.