A leaked handbook used by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents is providing insight into how Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) uses civil asset forfeiture. Every year, ICE seizes millions of dollars of property even when they do not have enough evidence to press criminal charges.
The 71-page “Asset Forfeiture Handbook” stresses the importance of funds obtained through civil asset forfeiture to ICE. Not only do these seizures help “fund future law enforcement actions,” they also cover costs “HSI would otherwise be unable to fund.” ICE has confirmed that the handbook, although published in 2010, still represents current guidance for their agents on civil asset forfeiture.
When considering whether to seize physical property, HSI agents are instructed to focus on its value. “As a general rule,” the handbook says, “if total liabilities and costs incurred in seizing a real property of business exceed the value of the property, the property should not be seized.” Agents are not to “waste investigative time and resources” if assets are deemed to be “liabilities.”
Once they have obtained a search warrant, HSI agents are to take a real estate appraiser with them as they examine the property. The appraiser is tasked with identifying “all items that may be of concern or may deter the Government form pursuing forfeiture.”
As well as considering “the assessed value” of a property and its “probable equity,” agents need to factor in “the ability to overcome possible defenses to the forfeiture” before beginning civil asset forfeiture procedures. In cases where seizing the property will not be profitable to UCI, civil forfeiture is not deemed an appropriate action. This suggests that the central concern to ICE is the property’s value, not its relationship to any crime.
For the instances where there is “not enough net equity to justify seizure,” the handbook allows there may still be an “overriding law enforcement reason” for seizure. In this case, “the value of the item may be of secondary importance.” The inference here is again that in other situations, the value of the item is of primary importance.
ICE is under the authority of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Over the last ten years, DHS has seized assets worth billions of dollars using civil asset forfeiture. These assets are placed in a fund managed by the Treasury Department. According to a report published by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2014, DHS contributed $3.6 billion to the Treasury fund between 2003 and 2013. From 2007 onwards, ICE provided “approximately 50 percent or more of total forfeiture revenues by DHS components.”
ICE spokesperson Danielle Bennett says civil asset forfeiture “is an essential element of comprehensive and effective law enforcement as it deprives transnational criminal organizations of their illicitly obtained assets.”
Despite this, Robert Don Gifford, a former assistant U.S. attorney at the Justice Department, talks about how he saw civil asset forfeiture being used as a tool for financial gain by law enforcement against individuals rather than criminal organizations. “I had one case where they wanted to do all these forfeitures, and I said absolutely not. … I said I’d support it as long as it was not a retired mom and pop running a little flea market table on the weekend, but that was exactly who they were going after.”
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.