Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) introduced legislation Wednesday that would reform federal civil asset forfeiture laws, offering key protections to innocent people whose property is seized by the government. The Deterring Undue Enforcement by Protecting Rights of Citizens from Excessive Searches and Seizures Act (H.R. 5283), or Due Process Act, is the most significant, if not first, major reform of federal forfeiture laws since 2000, when Congress passed the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act.
Civil asset forfeiture is a legal tool by which law enforcement agencies seize either tangible property or cash without ever arresting or charging, let alone convicting, someone of a crime. In federal forfeiture proceedings, the government can permanently seize the property or cash based on a low standard of evidence — a preponderance of the evidence, or a 51 percent likelihood that the information presented is true — and, in a perversion of justice, the burden of proof falls on the property owner. A legal fiction exists in forfeiture proceedings because the case is brought against the seized item, not an individual. The property owner bears the full cost of all legal fees, even if they cannot afford counsel, and is responsible for navigating the complicated and onerous process.
Previous efforts to reform federal civil asset forfeiture laws fell far short of offering meaningful protections to innocent property owners. In 2000, then-House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) introduced the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act, or CAFRA. As originally introduced, the bill would have raised the standard…