Civil asset forfeiture is different from most legal processes, where law enforcement officials seize property they assert has been involved in criminal activity. One need not be involved or charged with a crime in order for his or her property to be seized. In other words, in civil asset forfeiture proceedings, it’s essentially the property that is charged with the crime.
Forfeiture laws have been used historically and are intended to be used as tools to fight organized crime. When targeting criminal organizations whose sheer amount resources make them incredibly difficult to prosecute, having a legal means to seize the assets of these organizations can be helpful in weakening them. In practice, however, civil asset forfeiture laws are not always used in this way.
Before going into the varying applications of this law, it’s good to know the most common types of asset forfeitures. There are three kinds of civil asset forfeitures you should be aware of:
- Contraband – Any illegal property as classified at the state and federal levels. Items such as narcotics, smuggled weapons or animals, and stolen property are unlawful to possess. They are therefore classified as contraband and thus can be seized.
- Profits from illegal activity – Any property that was gained as a result of illegal activity. For example, if law enforcement charges someone with selling drugs, this opens up a very broad range of property that can be seized from that person because law enforcement can allege that their property was obtained through illegally-gained income.
- Commission of a crime instrumentality or tools – Any property used to aid the commission of a crime. This can be anything, including a house or automobile which facilitated the sale of illegal drugs. This can even happen when the owner of the property is judged to be innocent of the crime – all it takes is for law enforcement to prove that a house or vehicle is linked to the crime.
As you might have gathered, some of these categories are very broad and have potential for abuse. Although it can be a strong way to fight larger criminal organizations, some law enforcement agencies have used and continue to use civil asset forfeiture as a way to pad their own revenue.
Despite its potential for abuse, proponents of civil asset forfeiture maintain that the good far outweighs the bad. It is true that it has been used in certain cases to benefit unsuspecting citizens who were victims of fraud or other schemes, such as the returning to victims of their swindled funds in the wake of the Bernard Madoff fraud.
Whatever the case, once the government has decided to seize property, you are legally obligated to a fair chance to win your property back. The problem is that even if you are innocent or completely oblivious to a crime, you must put forth a defense to demonstrate that your assets were obtained lawfully and that you did not consciously use them to break the law. An experienced asset forfeiture attorney can make sure that you keep what’s yours.