When a person takes your assets, you contact the police. However, who do you contact when law enforcers take your assets? Well, this is a common phenomenon under civil asset forfeiture. Often, persons whose property has been seized do not know how to acquire their assets back or fear they could be convicted of an offense for attempting. If your assets have been seized, our knowledgeable attorneys at Asset Forfeiture Attorney can help. For many years, we have represented thousands of clients in California and throughout the United States.

Understanding Civil Asset Forfeiture Abuse

A civil asset forfeiture is a legal tool that permits law enforcers to seize an asset that they think was involved in criminal activity. The asset's owner does not have to be found guilty of an offense. Civil asset forfeiture charges the property itself with crime involvement.

If your asset is forfeited, the government can:

  • Use it for official use.
  • Sell it provided, the law doesn't require its destruction and is safe to the public.
  • Transfer it to another party that disposes or destroys the property.

The proceeds of the sale should first foot all costs associated with the civil asset forfeiture like the seizure, storage cost, advertising charges, and court charges. If there is any money left, it goes to either the political subdivision that took your asset, return to the law enforcement agency that seized it or the General Fund of the State. It provides money for police needs such as exercise equipment, jails, squad cars, a margarita machine, and military equipment.

Originally, forfeiture was used to cripple large-scale illegal businesses like selling drugs by diverting their resources. In the 1980s, police officers said they required a tool to help arrest large-scale drug traffickers and cartel leaders, who were difficult to pin cases on. Therefore, Congress amended the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, creating the Department of Justice's Asset Forfeiture Fund.

Other assets subject to civil forfeiture include:

  • A weapon involved in committing an assault with a deadly weapon
  • Computer or telecommunication equipment used in committing a computer offense, including internet fraud
  • Motor vehicles used in crimes like transportation of stolen property
  • Animals if you are found guilty of animal abuse and cruelty
  • Machines used to violate the law such as making fake trademarks
  • Property interest obtained through a series of criminal profiteering conduct

However, aided by deeply flawed laws, most law enforcement agencies use civil asset forfeiture to benefit themselves. Therefore, making seizures driven by profits instead of fighting crime.

According to the Institute for Justice, The Treasury and Justice departments deposited approximately five billion dollars into their asset forfeiture funds in 2014. The FBI reports that burglary losses amounted to more than $3.5 billion. That means the police seized more assets from people than burglars did in 2014.

Additionally, the study conducted by the Institute of Justice found out that:

  • Despite claims that asset forfeiture gives police more resources to fight criminal activities, forfeiture proceeds don't mean that more crimes are solved.
  • Forfeiture proceedings do not reduce drug use even though forfeiture is claimed to get rid of street drugs by crippling drug cartels and dealers financially.
  • Civil asset forfeiture activity increases when the local economy suffers.

These results prove that the value of forfeiture in fighting crime is exaggerated and that law enforcers use it to raise revenue.

If your property has been seized, lawfully regaining the property is hard and costly, with expenses that sometimes surpass your asset's worth. In Illinois, for instance, to challenge the seizure, you must pay a bond of ten percent of the property's value. Should you lose the case, you should pay the total legal cost of the proceedings. Even if you prevail in the case, you lose ten percent of the bond, not forgetting the attorney costs you accrued.

According to an article published in the Washington Post, asset forfeiture abuse disproportionately affects both people of color and poor communities. For instance, in Nevada, 2/3 of seizures in 2016 occurred in areas with minority populations and a high rate of poverty. Also, in four hundred federal cases where people contested civil asset forfeiture and received their money back, most were blacks.

How Civil Asset Forfeiture Differs From Criminal Asset Forfeiture?

It is best to note that civil asset forfeiture is different from criminal asset forfeiture. At times a civil case can involve aspects of asset forfeiture.

In criminal asset forfeiture, the government seizes an asset due to the crime committed by a defendant. Civil forfeiture, on the other hand, doesn't require a conviction or commission of an offense. Your asset can also be held due to another reason, such as failing to pay taxes.

Other variations between the two include:

  • The standard of proof beyond any reasonable doubt is higher in a criminal case.
  • Generally, the state offers defendants with criminal defense attorneys in criminal cases.
  • Typically, criminal forfeiture follows state laws, while civil asset forfeiture uses federal laws.

Example of Civil Asset Forfeiture Abuse

In 2010, Jonathan and his father, Stephen Skinner, were on a trip to a vacation in Las Vegas when police in New Mexico State pulled them over for driving above the speed limit. The police searched their motor vehicle and found thousands of dollars in coins and cash in the luggage that they had planned to use at the casinos in Nevada. The police officer called Stephen "boy" and claimed that it was not over when releasing him.

And as the two black men reached Albuquerque, law enforcers pulled them over, searched the luggage, and took their money claiming that the money was from an illegal origin. Neither the father nor the son was accused or convicted of an offense.

Luckily, Jonathan and Stephen contacted the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and challenged the case in court. The case made news throughout the state, resulting in outrage of the injustice of the conduct.

The New Mexico ACLU, together with the Rio Grande Foundation, Institute of Justice, and the Drug Policy Alliance in 2015, pushed the passage of a bill that banned civil asset forfeiture. The bill requires police to acquire a conviction before seizing an asset. Also, the bill requires all forfeited property to go to the state fund. That way, the profit-driven police conduct is reduced.

However, most law enforcement agencies are addicted to quick money. For instance, the Albuquerque Police Department did not fully adhere to the bill claiming it does not apply to the driving while intoxicated car seizure program.

Federal and State Legislators are Now Taking Civil Asset Forfeiture Reforms Seriously

Since 2014, Washington, D.C, and twenty-four states have tightened asset forfeiture laws. Judicial efforts are also pending in six other states. Today, 14 states require a conviction for civil asset forfeiture claims. It is illegal for law enforcers in New Mexico, Nebraska, and North Carolina to engage in forfeiture.

In 2016, Jerry Brown, the then California governor, signed a bill that requires a conviction before police can seize property whose value is less than forty thousand dollars.

Additionally, Tom Wolf, Pennsylvania Governor, in 2017, signed into law a bill that required prosecutors and police to stop taking hold of property without warning. Law enforcers are now required to present evidence to the court that there was an emergency requiring urgent action, and there aren't less drastic methods to safeguard members of the public. The bill raised the standard of proof from the preponderance of the evidence. It shifted the burden of proof from owners of the asset to the police.

Additionally, the bill comes with a transparency requirement and protection for asset owners not guilty of an offense.

Congress is also contemplating legislation that will:

  • Create a high burden of proof for asset forfeitures,
  • Offer for appointments of legal representation for needy property owners,
  • Compensate attorney's charges should the asset owner prevail in the case,
  • Create a public database, and
  • Require annual auditing.

In 2017, a senator in Georgia presented a bill that required police to acquire a conviction before keeping the seized property. The Vice President of Legislated Affairs at FreedomWorks supported the bill.

How an Attorney Can Help Fight Civil Asset Forfeiture Abuse

The government's burden of proof in a civil asset forfeiture abuse is lower than in a criminal proceeding. The burden of proof could even shift to the claimant, who should establish a legitimate claim to the asset. Because the government burden is lower, the court could hold that the asset was taken away due to unlawful conduct even when the government cannot produce adequate proof to get a criminal conviction.

After seizing your asset, the federal authority should issue you a written notice within sixty days. Any time you or any authorized person wishing to contest the asset seizure can bring a case with the agency to identify your asset and state your interest in your asset. The law enforcement agency has ninety days to release the asset or start civil forfeiture proceedings in a federal District Court. During the proceeding, the government has the burden of proof by a preponderance of proof that your asset is lawfully subject to civil asset forfeiture.

Forfeiture law is complicated. Forfeiture can rob you of a home, bank accounts, money, motor vehicle, and all you own. While a criminal charge can be filed, a civil asset forfeiture abuse claim should be handled with caution to avoid damaging your future defense. Therefore, it's wise to consult a seasoned forfeiture lawyer immediately. The attorney will not only seek the return of your asset but also protect future asset forfeiture abuse. 

One of the numerous defenses to civil asset forfeiture abuse is challenging the police's claim. If the law enforcement agency cannot prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the property or money was involved in a crime or you deliberately tried to avoid transaction reporting requirements or launder the money, then the forfeiture case will not win. For instance, you have a legal defense if you made several ten thousand dollars cash deposits but didn't plan to avoid the reporting requirements.

Additionally, you have an affirmative legal defense to the abuse and could get your property back even if it was involved in the commission of an offense. However, you should establish that you were not aware of the unlawful conduct.

Your defense attorney can also use the Eighth Amendment of the United States constitution that bans excessive fines. It is particularly essential when police officers are grossly disproportionate to your alleged crime.

You can also challenge the civil asset forfeiture abuse by proving the asset isn't subject to forfeiture.

The greatest challenge faced by property owners is that they do not have a right to court-appointed attorneys. It is because their proceedings are not criminal but civil. That means many property owners are not represented since it is not economically logical to engage an attorney if the worth of the asset taken is less than the cost of having a legal expert.

How to Protect Yourself from Civil Asset Forfeiture Abuse

You need to be watchful about protecting your property against civil asset forfeiture abuse until there is widespread reform. Here is how to keep your property and money safe:

Do Not Make Numerous Consecutive Bank Deposits Lower the Ten Thousand Dollars

Doing this is not unlawful unless you want to avoid federal reporting requirements. Often clients who attempt avoiding this rule attune banks, and the banks will report them. Therefore, it is advisable to reduce the risk of being charged with smurfing or structuring. So, can you hide some money in your home? When you have tallied at least ten thousand dollars, it permits you to make vast deposits in fewer quantities and avoid red flags.

Follow the First Tip with the Appropriate Documentation

Should you deposit more than ten thousand dollars in the bank, you should fill in anti-money laundering paperwork. It's to make sure the money originated from a legitimate enterprise. Carefully budget your money and hold off on your deposits until they reach a ten-thousand-dollar mark and fill in the necessary paperwork with a credit union or bank as evidence.

Be Cautious Who You Lend Your Money To

If your money is used in the commission of an offense or even suspended as such, the amount will be confiscated. The police could even trace you and result in being charged with a crime that you did not engage in or did not know. This principle also applies to your property.

Avoid Carrying A Lot of Money with You

When police pull you over, search your motor vehicle, and find a lot of money, they will think your travel is suspicious. Irrespective of your intention for lawfully carrying the cash, a law enforcement agency could allege that it is illicit proceeds, proof of something devious, or drug money. Therefore, do not travel with cash, instead leave it in your bank or at home and carry your checkbook.

Use Your Credit Card

Just like a checkbook, when was the last time that law enforcers seized credit cards? It is an alternative to carrying vast sums of money because a stolen or misplaced credit card could be canceled with a call to the bank.

Ask for More Information from Your Bank

Financial providers are not allowed to advise clients that the deposit activities could be unlawful or enlighten them about structuring except when the client asks. If you ask, you will be provided with federal pamphlets that you should dig further. In the pamphlets are the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) contact details for more details. It is advisable to speak with a lawyer on your rights before depositing a lot of money.

Getting Money Back Following a Law Enforcement Seizure

There are steps you can take to recover money that police seized. You should be issued with a receipt explaining all items taken and put in custody when removed through a search warrant. The search warrant must be completed and filed with a court clerk within five days following the warrant's fulfillment. You can access a copy with the court clerk's office. Typically, the receipt has instructions on how you can retrieve your property.

When There was No Receipt Issued

If you were not issued with a receipt, you should return to your place of arrest following your release to get the receipt. The arresting police officer has details about your arrest and number. Your attorney should be able to help you get the receipt.

You have a right to a receipt with complete and correct data. Do not sign the receipt if it is not filled or has inaccurate information. You should present it for correction in a timely way.  

Find Civil Asset Forfeiture Lawyer Near Me

When charged with a crime, you risk suffering asset forfeiture by the police. While your property or money should not be forfeited unless you're found guilty, most police officers will immediately take hold of the asset following your arrest. You don't have to go through the devastating process alone. The legal team at Asset Forfeiture Attorney is dedicated to working for the return of your hard-earned money and property. Contact us at 888-571-5590 for a free consultation, and together we can come up with a strategy that protects your assets.