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EDITORIAL: Democrats, Republicans come together on civil forfeiture reform

Bipartisan sniping has hampered Congress in recent years and shows no signs of abating. But on one issue, at least — civil forfeiture — Republicans and Democrats, libertarians and progressives, are joining forces to make substantial progress.

Earlier this month, the House unanimously advanced legislation limiting the IRS’s authority to seize bank accounts from Americans suspected of “structuring” — making financial transactions just below the government’s $10,000 reporting threshold. Tax agents typically view such activity as suspicious and had used forfeiture laws to loot millions from hundreds of people — including many small-business owners — who were never accused of criminal activity.

Then last week the House followed up by unanimously adding to an appropriations package five amendments intended to show the lower chamber’s displeasure with the attorney general’s revival of a controversial forfeiture program known as “equitable sharing.” It encourages local enforcement officials to skirt state forfeiture laws and seize property under more permissive federal statutes. They then may keep a significant portion of the proceeds, while the property owner need never be charged with a crime.

One amendment redirects $10 million from the Justice Department’s forfeiture budget to “a program designed to help local governments reduce the backlog of unprocessed rape kits,” The Wall Street Journal reports. A second rider prohibits Justice from granting bonuses to certain employees until they clear appeals from 255 people who accuse the IRS of improperly using forfeiture law to confiscate their bank accounts.

The other three amendments — sponsored by members of both parties — attempt to reign in the use of “equitable sharing,” described by George Mason law professor Ilya Somin as “a menace to federalism as well as property rights.”

Writing for The Washington Post’s Volokh Conspiracy blog, Mr. Somin goes on to explain that, “Many states have enacted reforms preventing law enforcement agencies from profiting from asset forfeitures, thereby reducing incentives to seize the property of people who have not been convicted of any crimes. Equitable sharing circumvents these state laws by enabling police to profit from seizures through payments funneled through the federal government.”

The Senate should affirm all five amendments when it takes up the spending bill. Then Republicans and Democrats in both chambers should build on this bipartisan goodwill and come together on a comprehensive civil forfeiture reform package that recognizes the tactic endangers due process and property rights.

No American should have cash, home, car or valuables confiscated by the government without being convicted of wrongdoing in a court of law.

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