During an era when law enforcement methods generate divisive uproar, broad bipartisan support has emerged in the highly partisan House to end one controversial practice.

House Judiciary Committee members last week unanimously approved proposed legislation to overhaul civil asset forfeiture, a policy that allows police to confiscate personal property from a person who has not been convicted or even charged with a crime.

“Despite the partisan gridlock of Washington, it is still possible to move forward with significant bipartisan reforms,” Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) said by email of the 26-0 vote. He has been trying to reform asset forfeiture since 2014. “With the FAIR Act’s unanimous passage at the Judiciary Committee, we have more momentum to not only pass this important bill in the House but pressure the Senate to take it up and get it to the President’s desk.” He co-sponsored the legislation with Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.).

FAIR stands for Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration, a reference to the Constitution’s directive that no person should be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

Under the legislation, only federal courts could impose civil forfeiture. Administrative forfeitures that lack judicial protections would be prohibited. Feds would have to prove individuals knew or should have known their property was related to a crime, instead of the lower standard that the property probably was connected to wrongdoing. The bill would stop financial forfeiture incentives by sending proceeds to the Treasury’s general fund instead of to law enforcement agency budgets.

It would also end “equitable sharing,” which allows state and local police on a case to have federal law enforcement seize property, with the feds then sharing the take with the police agencies. The Institute for Justice, which has long fought forfeiture practices, said sharing allows police to evade “more-restrictive civil forfeiture laws that state legislatures have passed to protect their citizens’ property rights.”

A broad coalition of 15 disparate organizations, including the Institute for Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Goldwater Institute and the NAACP, urged approval of the bill. Their letter said “this system is unjust on its face, has a disproportionate impact on poor and otherwise disadvantaged communities, and undermines public respect for law enforcement.”

The record is replete with law enforcement at all levels taking property without due process. The FAIR Act combines Republican rejection of big government overreach with Democratic opposition to oppressive police practices.

This “lawless seizure and civil ‘forfeiture’ of people’s private property by police officers is becoming standard operating procedure in many parts of the country,” Raskin said. “Our bipartisan legislation is rooted firmly in the Constitution and is receiving tremendous support because it restores the presumption of innocence, fair judicial process, property rights and the opportunity of citizens to be heard.”

Unfortunately, it comes too late for people like Linda Martin.

She and her husband put $40,200 intended for a new home in a safe-deposit box, No. 1810, at U.S. Private Vaults in Beverly Hills, Calif. She didn’t know the FBI had its eye on the company, because “its boxes were used regularly by unsavory characters to store criminal proceeds,” according to a Justice Department document, from “ransoms, gambling and prostitution rings, drug operations, and identity theft schemes.”

Martin and her husband were involved in none of that.

But rather than raiding only the boxes of suspects, in March 2021 the FBI confiscated all box contents worth more than $5,000. Officials misled the judge who approved a warrant for the raid, according to the Los Angeles Times. Its reporting revealed government misconduct, including defying court restrictions that limited the raid.

“They omitted from their warrant request a central part of the FBI’s plan: Permanent confiscation of everything inside every box containing at least $5,000 in cash or goods, a senior FBI agent recently testified,” the Times reported.

“That’s all the agency really knew about the customers: that they had property worth forfeiting,” said a report by the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit, public interest law firm. “It didn’t have any idea if owners had broken any law. But with dollar signs in its eyes, the FBI pressed on, sending out notices to hundreds of customers from whom it wanted to forfeit over $100 million cash, gold, and other valuables. Although those notices indirectly refer to hundreds of federal crimes, they don’t tell anyone what the government thinks they specifically did wrong.”

FBI and Justice Department officials did not comment on the case or on the legislation.

Describing the raid as “the biggest armed robbery in American history,” Rob Frommer, an Institute for Justice senior attorney, said: “Linda’s administrative forfeiture nightmare demonstrates why Congress should pass the FAIR Act. Agencies like the FBI should not be able to seize and forfeit without ever having to prove their case to a real judge.”

Not only did FBI agents not tell Martin if she had done anything wrong, they didn’t even tell her they took her money until after news of the raid broke.

“My husband was watching the local news and he’s the one who told me about it,” she said in an interview.

They went to the safe-deposit box company that night, gave their name and details to an agent, then waited months to get any information. Their plans for a new house were dashed.

“I was shocked. I was shocked,” Martin said. “We felt like we got robbed. I just couldn’t believe it.”

Then they had to prove their money was innocently earned, instead of the government proving it was dirty. “We sent our tax returns, our pay stubs, we sent everything in and they were still not trying to release our funds,” she said.

The Institute for Justice is appealing a federal district court ruling against the firm’s class-action lawsuit that alleged the FBI violated the Fourth Amendment rights of safe-deposit box holders. But many of them have gotten back their property or expect to get it back, eventually.

Yet more than two years later, Martin said Monday, “as of today, I have not received my money.”

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