Most Americans, it’s safe to say, aren’t inclined to accord Congress many ovations, standing or otherwise, given the current state of American politics. But the U.S. House of Representatives earned one this week by moving to curb a flagrant but common affront to the Constitution that should have been abolished years ago and should never have been tolerated in the first place.
By unanimous voice vote, the House approved legislation prohibiting the Justice Department from spending money to expand the abominable government abuse called “civil asset forfeiture” — the power of law enforcement to seize United States citizens’ money and property on mere suspicion of criminal activity, regardless of whether said citizens are ever convicted of, or even charged with, a crime.
The very term is so Orwellian it’s almost a self-parody. There’s certainly nothing “civil” about it, and property seized from a citizen entitled to the presumption of innocence isn’t “forfeited” — it’s confiscated. (That’s a milder term than the one used by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., one of the sponsors of the bipartisan legislation, who called the practice “outright theft.”)
One of the political ironies of Tuesday’s development is a Republican-majority House repudiating a Republican attorney general who in July announced the end of Obama-era limits on government power to seize private property. On Tuesday, the House sided with Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder, who in 2015 had moved to curb the gross and well-documented abuses of another Orwellian practice called “adoptive forfeiture.” Under that policy, the federal government could take property seized by local law enforcement (on “suspicion” that federal crime might be involved) and then give some of it back — a loophole to get around pesky laws in states where soft-on-crime nonsense like due process still gets in the way.
In announcing the reversal of the Holder policy, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the Justice Department would “continue to encourage civil-asset forfeiture whenever appropriate to hit organized crime in the wallet.”
Under exactly what circumstances, in our constitutional government, is preemptive punishment for the possibility of a crime — one that might or might not even have been committed — “appropriate”? The very concept is not just absurd; it’s obscene.
One thing the House action made clear is that this isn’t a partisan/ideological issue, or just a federal one. (Reps. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, and Alex Atwood, R-St. Simons, the latter a former judge and former federal drug agent, have been working to reform civil forfeiture laws in Georgia for at least two years.)
The House vote, while an unmistakable rebuff, would simply limit funding; it doesn’t come anywhere near ending what Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, called “a crime against the American people committed by their own government.”
But it’s a start. A more significant step would be for powerful officials of said government, among them the attorney general of the United States, to cultivate at least a passing acquaintance with the Bill of Rights.