Sometimes it seems like Congress is the most dysfunctional branch of the U.S. government. While the impact of the executive branch is undeniable and the work of the courts, while lower profile, is felt every day in criminal and civil cases, Congress sometimes appears to spend most of its time bickering. From threats of government shutdown, to filibusters, and partisan posturing, Congress can sometimes seem woefully slow to address important issues. However, on Tuesday, Congress passed a rare bipartisan initiative that united liberals and members of the conservative Freedom Caucus by voting to limit the federal government’s ability to seize the money and property of those who have been arrested for crimes, but not convicted.
Roughly two dozen states have implemented laws which limit local law enforcement’s ability to make use of asset forfeiture. However, critics argue that the federal government frequently circumvented those laws and undermined the protections put in place by the states. The amendment, which was included in a government spending bill, was pushed by a coalition of liberal and conservative lawmakers including Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Don Beyer (D-Va.) During a speech on the House floor, Amash called the practice unconstitutional.
‘This practice is outrageous. It supplants the authority of states to regulate their own law enforcement and it further mires the federal government in unconstitutional asset forfeitures.’
The passage of this amendment puts the Freedom Caucus members at odds with Donald Trump’s administration as the 2015 guidelines restricting the use of asset forfeiture were reversed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who said that “asset forfeiture is one of law enforcement’s most effective tools to reduce crime and its use should be encouraged where appropriate.” Sessions did add that there were to be safeguards in place to limit the federal government’s use of such a tool.
‘To ensure that this tool is used appropriately, the Department is implementing safeguards to make certain that there is sufficient evidence of criminal activity before a federal adoption occurs, that the evidence is well documented, that our state and local law enforcement partners have appropriate training to use this tool, and that there is appropriate supervisory review of decisions to approve forfeiture.’
Those who support the policy say that takes money criminals earned from crimes and uses it to benefit law enforcement and the victims of crimes. However, critics argue that it is an abuse of government power, especially when used against those who have not been convicted of a crime. After all, if someone is later found not guilty of a crime then they still lost money and property. Even if they are compensated for the lost money, that doesn’t make up for overdue bill payments and other financial issues caused by this policy.
In terms of passage, including this item as an amendment to the government spending bill is a good way to ensure it passes, as a stand-alone bill would likely have faced a much more difficult hurdle in both houses of Congress.
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