Congress has passed overwhelmingly the AOPA-supported legislation to protect innocent aircraft owners from government property seizures. The House approved the final version of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act on April 11. The Senate had approved the bill earlier, and President Clinton is expected to sign it into law shortly.
The law will make it harder for the government to seize property it suspects might be linked to a crime, and it will make it easier for property owners to reclaim seized property.
"For too long, the government has been able to seize an aircraft without a hearing, trial, or even an arrest, and innocent aircraft owners have had to spend considerable time and money to regain their property," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "This law will restore the balance. Innocent owners shouldn't be penalized for crimes they didn't commit."
Under the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act, the government must show by a "clear preponderance" of evidence that property targeted for seizure is connected to a crime.
It establishes an "innocent owner" defense. The government can't keep the aircraft if the owner did not know it was being used for an illegal activity, or if the owner made a good-faith effort to stop the illegal use.
If seizing an aircraft would cause a "substantial hardship," a judge can order the government to return the property to its owner pending final disposition of a forfeiture case.
The act will permit an innocent owner to sue the government for damage to seized property while it is in the government's possession. And the act eliminates the requirement that an owner pay 10 percent of the value of the confiscated property in order to sue the government.
AOPA was actively involved in the development of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), the act's sponsor, asked AOPA's legislative staff to review a draft of the legislation before it was introduced. The association's five-person congressional lobbying staff, based right in Washington, D.C., is well known on Capitol Hill and widely respected for its aviation and legislative expertise.
AOPA also sent letters to every member of Congress, urging support for the bill.
"AOPA's 355,000-member strength gives the association a powerful voice with Congress, particularly since AOPA members are more active in the political process than the average citizen," said Boyer.
"We're particularly grateful to Chairman Hyde for his seven-year effort to get this legislation enacted."
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is the world's largest civil aviation organization. More than one half of the nation's pilots, and three quarters of U.S. aircraft owners, are AOPA members.
April 13, 2000