House tries to force DOJ’s hand on asset forfeiture

The House of Representatives has agreed to several measures pushing back on Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ expansion of the Justice Department’s role in law enforcement seizure of US citizens’ property and cash without proof of guilt.

On Tuesday, the House passed four amendments via voice vote which would limit the Justice Department from using funds towards facilitating asset forfeiture.

Then-Attorney General Eric Holder curtailed the Justice Department’s involvement in the heavily criticized law enforcement practice, but Sessions changed the policy in July as one of many steps the new attorney general has taken to rescind Obama-era Justice Department policies.

One of the amendments, led by Michigan Republican Rep. Justin Amash, would use Congress’ funding authority to prohibit the Justice Department from taking any action blocked by Holder’s policies. Two others, one from Michigan Republican Rep. Tim Walberg and another from Maryland Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin, would ban the Justice Department from using funds to enforce Sessions’ July order.

And another amendment from California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa would take funding from asset forfeiture and allocate it toward reducing the backlog for rape kits.

The amendments came as the House deliberates on an appropriations bill. Senate leadership would need to leave those four measures on, and the whole Congress would have to pass the bill, for them to make it to President Donald Trump’s desk.

Nevertheless, the passage of the amendments indicated wide-ranging disapproval of Sessions’ choice to embrace a policy that allows police to seize property from people based only on suspicion.

Sessions has argued asset forfeiture helps curb crime, and Justice Department spokesman Drew Hudson told CNN after the amendments passed that Sessions’ decision meant law enforcement was more able to take “ill-gotten gains” from criminal organizations.

“The attorney general’s directive will reduce crime and violence by making it more difficult for criminal organizations to operate, hitting violent gangs and cartels where it hurts — their wallets,” Hudson said.

But as they saw the House pass their amendments against Sessions, lawmakers critical of asset forfeiture decried it as unconstitutional, undermining state attempts to limit the practice and incentivizing police to seek money ahead of public safety.

Amash described the practice as a violation of due process and called it outright “theft.”

Hawaii Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, speaking ahead of the vote on Amash’s amendment, called asset forfeiture “a crime against the American people committed by their own government.”

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