House OKs controls on seizing suspected crime assets

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — In a rebuke to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Republican-led House on Tuesday approved measures sponsored by Michigan members to restrict his directive expanding the government’s ability to confiscate the assets of criminal suspects.

In a surprise move, lawmakers passed by voice vote a bipartisan measure proposed by Republican Rep. Justin Amash of Cascade Township to reinstate the protections adopted by former Attorney General Eric Holder in 2015, limiting the seizure program that allows federal law enforcement to “adopt” forfeiture cases from local and state police.

The revenue-generating program gives police departments greater power to seize the property of criminal suspects, even if the suspects are never charged with a crime or convicted.

Lawmakers also approved by voice vote a bipartisan measure sponsored by GOP Rep. Tim Walberg of Tipton to cut off funding to carry out adoptive forfeitures during the 2018 fiscal year.

The votes came as the U.S. House debates amendments to a massive spending bill for domestic programs.

“Under current civil forfeiture law, the system is ripe for abuse and has undermined the constitutional rights of far too many Americans,” Walberg said on the House floor.

“America was founded on the principles of due process and property rights, and these principles must be vigorously defended.”

He noted that 24 states and the District of Columbia have adopted reforms to limit seizures. But federal law enforcement may help state and local police get around the restrictions by accepting property seized by local law enforcement, forfeiting it under federal law, and returning a cut of the proceeds to the state or local agency.

“This practice is outrageous,” Amash said during debate. “It supplants the authority of states to regulate their own law enforcement, and it further mires the federal government in unconstitutional asset forfeitures.”

During the administration of President Barack Obama, Holder instituted rules in 2015 barring the federal government from accepting property seized by local police, except where the property relates to public safety concerns, including firearms, ammunition, explosives and property associated with child pornography.

“These are common-sense restrictions that prevent the most egregious seizures,” Amash said.

Sessions revoked the 2015 rules in June, but Amash and Walberg’s amendments effectively restore them by prohibiting use of funds to carry out forfeitures that were prohibited under those rules.

Later Wednesday, the House approved an amendment sponsored by Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, that would boost funding by $3 million for three federal programs that aim to prevent lead exposure and help families and children exposed to lead or other toxins.

It would increase by $1 million each funding for the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities program administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention program administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and the Lead Poisoning Prevention program, also administered by the CDC.

In addition, the House voted down an amendment, 260-151, that would have reduced the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency by nearly $1.87 billion.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, joined 74 other Republicans to defeat the measure. He said it would have meant “drastic” cuts for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a cleanup program for the freshwater lakes.

“That’s a non-starter for me,” Upton said in a statement. “The amendment was bad news from the start, and I’m very pleased that Republicans and Democrats came together to defeat it.”

Three Michigan Republican members voted in favor of the EPA amendment, which did not directly target the Great Lakes program:  Amash, Bill Huizenga of Zeeland and Walberg.

Lawmakers on Wednesday also considered a Kildee-backed measure sponsored by Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colorado, that prohibits the EPA from closing any of its regional offices. The Trump administration indicated in its spring budget blueprint that it wants to close two EPA regional offices and consolidate regulatory activities.

The proposed amendment was defeated in a 212-201 vote.

EPA union representatives have said one of the administration’s targets might be the Chicago-based Region 5, which oversees environmental cleanup sites in the Great Lakes states of Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

In June, EPA Administrator Scott Pruit told a congressional committee that reports that the agency’s Great Lakes regional office in Chicago would permanently close are “pure legend.”

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