Federal civil asset forfeiture is a huge issue throughout the United States. It differs from criminal asset forfeiture in which a person’s property is forfeited after they have been convicted of a crime. With federal civil asset forfeiture, a person’s property is seized by police even though the individual is never even charged with a crime.
What is Federal Civil Asset Forfeiture?
In general, federal civil asset forfeiture is usually utilized when a person is suspected of some sort of organized criminal activity or for drug related crimes. In most cases, it involves a lawsuit by the government against the property, such as when law enforcement suspects that property is involved in the commission of said crimes. Oddly, the property itself is the defendant in a way.
Although it depends on the jurisdiction, law enforcement officials are required to merely show that a preponderance of the evidence exists regarding the belief that the forfeited property was involved in a suspected crime. However, this is a considerably lower standard of proof than what is required to convict a person of a crime. It is why property can be so readily seized from a person when they are not convicted or even charged of a crime. However, at the same time, even if it is proven that the person who owns the property is completely innocent of any crime, if the property is believed to have been involved in the commission of a crime, they may never get that property back.
In most cases, property involved in a federal civil asset forfeiture is sold at auction, which means the owner can never recover it. The majority of the proceeds earned from the sale, including any cash that may have also been seized, goes directly to law enforcement.
Organizations that are typically involved in federal civil asset forfeiture include the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), as well as others. The Supreme Court gives these agencies the legal right to seize property suspected in crimes. However, as per the law, the government is required to send property owners written notice of the situation within 60 days of seizing the property.
If the owner of the property sends a claim to the government agency about the upcoming asset forfeiture, the government has 90 days to either file a civil complaint against the seized property or get a criminal indictment for the forfeiture. If the government fails to do either of those things, it is required to return the property to its owner.
Asset Forfeiture and Equitable Sharing
Back in July 2017, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a plan to revive the Equitable Sharing Program. This would allow better collaboration between federal agencies and state and local police. This means that agencies that seized property in federal asset forfeiture cases would be able to return 80 percent of the money back to state agencies. It is controversial but allows agencies on the local sector to bypass state laws that put a limit on the amount earned from seized assets that they are allowed to keep.
For example, some states make it illegal for law enforcement agencies to use funds from asset forfeiture. However, with this program, law enforcement officials would be able to claim 80 percent of the funds to use right in their own police departments.
Unfortunately for people who lose their property to federal asset forfeiture, they usually never recover that property, even if they can prove that it was never used in a crime. A person may request of law enforcement authorities to get their property back, but the authorities would likely not comply. Additionally, they can legally refuse as well.