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Bill Will Protect Innocent Citizens Without Undermining Law Enforcement

US Senator Charles E. Schumer (DNY) today joined Sen. Jeff Sessions (RAL) to introduce the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 1999. The SessionsSchumer Bill, which is also cosponsored by Senators Thurmond (RSC), Biden (DDE), Feinstein (DCA), Helms (RNC) and Cleland (DGA), seeks to reform federal civil asset forfeiture laws while preserving forfeiture as a valuable law enforcement tool.

"I'm proud to stand here today with my colleagues to discuss our new civil forfeiture reform bill which we believe bridges the gap between law enforcement, innocent property owners, and civil libertarians," said Schumer.

SessionsSchumer significantly reforms federal civil asset forfeiture laws, which allow the government to seize and then seek the forfeiture of property that has a connection to crime. For example, the government uses civil asset forfeiture laws to secure the forfeiture of drug proceeds or cars used to transport drugs. This legislation would make it easier for individuals whose property has been seized unjustly to contest seizure in court and make it more difficult for federal law enforcement agencies to pursue forfeiture when it is not legally justified.

"Our coalition here today does not often come together to work on a bill, but what does unite Senators Sessions, Thurmond, Biden, Feinstein, Helms, Cleland and me is the belief that something's wrong with federal civil forfeiture law, and that if the cure kills the patient then we play into the hands of criminals who have made millions of dollars illegally," said Schumer. "Current civil forfeiture law stacks the deck against the property owner. The House bill stacks the deck against law enforcement. Our bill cuts the deck fairly and squarely."

The most significant way in which the SessionsSchumer Bill reforms federal civil asset forfeiture laws is by raising the burden of proof on the federal government from "probable cause" to a "preponderance of the evidence." Currently, when the federal government seizes property and pursues forfeiture, the government needs only to prove probable cause for that seizure and then the burden of proof shifts to the person whose property has been seized. This legislation would place the burden squarely on the government to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the property is subject to forfeiture.

SessionsSchumer would also create a "uniform innocent owner defense." Under current law, a person whose property is seized can sometimes, but not always defeat a forfeiture by proving that they did not participate in the crime or know of the property's link to crime. This legislation would extend that "innocent owner defense" to all attempted civil forfeitures. In addition, the SessionsSchumer Bill would allow people to secure the return of their property during forfeiture litigation where being deprived of that property would cause "substantial hardship" to the property owner. The legislation would also require the government to pay attorneys' fees for the person whose property was seized in cases where the government ultimately lost its forfeiture case.

"The SessionsSchumer bill puts the burden of proof where it belongs on the government," said Schumer. "It ensures that the truly innocent will not lose their property and it holds the government responsible for damaging property they had no right to seize."

While SessionsSchumer institutes these reforms to ensure that property is not seized unjustly, it also provides federal prosecutors with modest new authorities related to civil asset forfeiture litigation.

"This bill gives law enforcement commonsense tools to facilitate the forfeiture of tainted money and drug proceeds," said Schumer. "Forfeiture gamesmanship can be a twoway street. This bill closes some of the loopholes that criminals exploit right now to protect their assets from seizure, while protecting the innocent."

SessionsSchumer is supported by numerous law enforcement organizations and was drafted in extensive consultation with the United States Department of Justice.

"Law enforcement isn't opposed to forfeiture reform," said Schumer. "They simply and rightly want to make sure we don't throw out the baby with the bath water."

Schumer is the ranking member of the Criminal Justice Oversight Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over most federal civil asset forfeiture laws. The subcommittee held hearings in July on the issue of civil asset forfeiture reform.

The House of Representatives passed a version of forfeiture reform legislation, introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde and Ranking Democratic House Judiciary Committee Member John Conyers, on June 24, 1999.

"In short, this bill says to the government civil forfeiture is a powerful tool in the war against drugs and money launderers," said Schumer. "Now this legislation will make the misuse of forfeiture a lot harder than it used to be."

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