Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform

H.R. 1658 passes House Judiciary Committee

From The Drug Policy Foundation*

On June 15, 1999, The Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 1999, a bill sponsored by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and 57 cosponsors, passed the House Judiciary Committee by a 27-3 vote.

"With the passage of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act, the House Judiciary Committee has taken an important first step to restoring Americans' property rights," said DPF Senior Policy Analyst Scott Ehlers. "If this legislation is passed into law, Americans will be better protected from one of the worst abuses of police power."

The bill's smooth, bipartisan passage out of committee should bode well for it on the floor of the House. Because HR 1658 has such a broad array of cosponsors, from conservatives such as J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.), to liberals such as Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), it stands a very good chance of passing the House.

One reason HR 1658 has attracted so much support is that conservatives and liberals have noted that police use civil asset forfeiture disproportionately against minorities. A 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning piece in the Pittsburgh Press found that a grossly disproportionate number of forfeitures were carried out against minorities. Subsequent investigations into forfeitures in other states, such as Florida, have found the same results.

"I consider this literally a civil rights bill of great magnitude," Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) said during the committee's meeting.

Under the guise of fighting the war on drugs, law enforcement can seize your home, car, or money without ever charging you with a crime. The practice of taking property that "looks guilty" is known as civil asset forfeiture, and it is one of the most abused police powers in America today.

Reps. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), John Conyers (D-Mich.), and other members of the House of Representatives in Congress are seeking to curb federal civil asset forfeiture abuses with H.R. 1658, the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act. If passed, this legislation would:

  • force the government to prove that property is related to a crime, as opposed to the current practice of property owners' having to prove that their property is innocent;
  • create an "innocent owner defense," whereby property owners who are either unaware of or unsuccessfully try to stop criminal activity on their property could recover the property;
  • provide indigent defendants with appointed counsel;
  • eliminate the cost-bond requirement, which currently requires property owners to pay $5,000 or 10 percent of the seized property's value to contest the seizure in court;
  • provide compensation for property damage caused by federal agents;
  • extend the time for filing a claim to contest a forfeiture; and
  • provide prevailing property owners with compensatory interest in certain situations.


Call or Write Your Representative - The Drug Policy Foundation is urging you to contact your representative and ask him/her to cosponsor H.R. 1658. Feel free to use the following:

As your constituent, I urge you to support H.R. 1658, the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act. This legislation will serve to protect my property rights, which are threatened by abuses of civil asset forfeiture laws. The current law places the burden of proof on the property owner, reversing the presumption that an American is innocent until proven guilty. H.R. 1658 would shift the burden back on the government to prove that a person's property was involved in a crime. It would also establish an "innocent owner defense" for persons who were not aware that their property was being used in a criminal activity, and provide a court-appointed attorney for people who cannot afford one.

Please join the 13 Republican and 16 Democratic cosponsors, and vote in favor of H.R. 1658 to restore Americans' property rights. I look forward to hearing from you about your position on this important legislation


Call Your Representative - Calling your representative is an easy way to make your views known to him/her. This bill is going to move quickly, so if you don't have time to send a letter to your representative, give him/her a call. You should:

  • Find your representative and his/her phone number by going to the House of Representatives website. You can also call the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at (202) 225-3121 and tell the operator your zip code.
  • Speak with the legislative assistant who is working on asset forfeiture or criminal justice issues.
  • Keep the message simple. Urge your representative to support H.R. 1658 and civil asset forfeiture reform for the reasons outlined above. Ask for a return letter explaining your representative's position on the legislation and civil asset forfeiture.

Fax, Write a Letter, or Email Your Representative and Senator - Writing your member of Congress is very effective, and usually results in a written response explaining your member's position. You can find the fax number and email address of your representative by going the House of Representatives website. Letters can be addressed to your representative as follows:

The Honorable [your representative]
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515-1101


*The Drug Policy Foundation, having merged with the Lindesmith Center is now the Drug Policy Alliance