WASHINGTON — ATTORNEY General Janet Reno has asked Congress to delay until early next year its efforts to reform the government's controversial civil asset forfeiture program.
In an Oct. 18 letter obtained by the Monitor, the attorney general requests that Rep. Jack Brooks (D) of Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, ``postpone considering any forfeiture legislation.''
Forfeiture has come under heavy attack from defense attorneys and civil libertarians, as well as some judges and members of Congress. Federal lawmen annually seize millions of dollars worth of property to crack down on drug dealers and other criminals. Critics say the seizures, which do not require a criminal trial, often punish innocent Americans.
Ms. Reno tells Representative Brooks that she has launched a review ``to fashion a proposal for any necessary legal and administrative changes to the program.'' The Justice Department review will take approximately 75 days, she says, and her proposals should be ready ``shortly thereafter.''
Two congressmen, Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois and Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan, have led a growing effort on Capitol Hill to rein in civil forfeitures.
Representative Hyde's bill, which now has 47 co-sponsors, puts the burden of proof in seizure cases on the government. Presently, people who lose their property must prove that the house, boat, or car was not ``guilty'' of being used in a crime. Proving innocence is difficult and costly, and many cannot afford it.
Meanwhile, Rep. Craig Washington (D) of Texas has introduced a crime bill which, among other things, would fundamentally change forfeiture procedures. Mr. Washington's bill would require that the government win a criminal conviction before property could be seized. Washington would also limit the property that may be seized to items used directly in the illegal drug business.
Law enforcement officials strongly oppose even Hyde's milder bill. They argue that taking away civil forfeiture would cripple efforts against the illegal narcotics trade. Proceeds from forfeitures are used to buy police equipment and, in some cases, to pay salaries for lawmen.
In her letter, Reno assures Brooks: ``With your cooperation, I am certain we can develop a legislative package that ... strikes the correct balance to achieve the goal of tough, effective and fair law enforcement.'' Reno says her goal is to ``fully protect the lawful property interests of innocent owners'' and to provide them with ``fairness and due process.''
Critics say that civil asset forfeiture fails to provide fairness for anyone, however. Forfeiture, they argue, deprives both the innocent and the guilty of property without traditional due process protections.