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The History of Civil Asset Forfeiture (Abridged)

Civil asset forfeiture has gotten more attention in recent years as innocent victims’ stories make national headlines: A Wisconsin man had his life savings taken away by police based on no evidence, money he had planned to open a music studio with; an Alabama car dealer had his reputation and business forever tainted by the seizure and subsequent prosecution of his assets.

But civil asset forfeiture hasn’t always taken this form, and its potential for abuse largely depends on which state one resides in. In fact, civil asset forfeiture has a long history going back to the Middle Ages.

Something like civil asset forfeiture first materialized in history in the form of a deodand. That word comes from the Latin deo dandum, meaning “that which must be given to God.” It was a medieval legal concept and form of forfeiture in that the Crown could confiscate an instrument that caused death on the grounds that the object itself was guilty (such as a sword, knife, or horse-drawn cart). In this way, it didn’t actually matter if the true owner of the property was guilty or not; if a friend borrowed your battleaxe and committed murder with it, the Crown could seize your battleaxe. That’s not all too unlike civil asset forfeiture laws today.

The next significant form of civil asset forfeiture emerged in the Navigation Acts in 17th century Britain. These required commodity merchants to operate in boats built, owned, and manned by British interests. Violation of the acts would have potentially resulted in the forfeiture of property, be it the goods or the ship itself. Again, even if the owner was innocent or evaded prosecution, the property could be charged.

The United States adopted similar laws in the early 19th century in order to prosecute smugglers who were evading customs duties. In a 1827 Supreme Court case, Justice Joseph Story argued that “no personal conviction of the offender is necessary to enforce a forfeiture in rem in cases of this nature,” observing that “the thing is here primarily considered as the offender, or rather the offense is attached primarily to the thing.”

A Civil War act, called the Confiscation Act, was the next big move in the United States. Assets left behind by Southerners in the North were suddenly the target of similar laws, which now allowed the federal government to seize Confederate property without a proper conviction since the owners had fled to the South. In the 1920s, during Prohibition, the Supreme Court upheld the seizure of a “guilty car” that had been used to transport then-banned liquor.

After this, civil forfeiture was firmly lodged in US legal vocabulary until the War on Drugs in the 1970s, where it really took root and grew into the source of many abuses and shocking headlines today.

Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney

If your lawful property has been seized, then you should hire a lawyer. Contact us to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of Florida’s most experienced civil forfeiture defense attorneys.


Civil Forfeiture Came From a Strange Place

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