Civil Forfeiture: The Impartial Pursuit of Justice and a Threat to Private Property
"Civil forfeiture" refers to the practice of the government taking and selling off your property without your ever having been convicted, or even charged, with a crime. Despite the clear declaration in the Bill of Rights that no one can be deprived of their property without due process of law, property owners frequently see their cash, automobiles, real estate, etc. seized by government agencies at will. Thus, property owners never even charged with wrongdoing are given less rights than criminal defendants.
To make matters worse, law enforcement agencies are often allowed to keep all or part of the proceeds after taking and selling off your property. They then allocate the revenue for their own usage, creating a direct financial incentive to seize as much property as possible and maximize their profits.
Civil forfeiture is a clear threat to private property rights and to the impartial pursuit of justice. If you have had any of your assets wrongfully confiscated by federal or state authorities, Jacek Lentz is an experienced asset forfeiture attorney whom you can count on to defend your property rights with tenacity and legal acumen.
The History of Civil Forfeiture
The origins of civil forfeiture lie in a "legal fiction" that arose out of a Medieval superstition known as "deodand," which supposed that objects could act on their own to cause a person's death. Civil forfeiture takes the audacious step of trying inanimate objects for involvement in crimes. The proceedings are "in rem," meaning "against a thing," and have bizarre case titles such as U.S. vs. $35,651 or State of TX vs. 2004 Chevrolet Silverado. This is a legal fiction, however, since things obviously cannot break laws.
Some will try to defend civil forfeiture by citing its use in the days of our Founding Fathers. They did not believe in the Medieval superstition, and their words in the Bill of Rights and elsewhere make it clear, however, that they would not tolerate modern day use of civil forfeiture.
The Founders merely used civil forfeiture to enforce the collection of customs duties, which at the time, accounted for 80% to 90% of the federal government's revenues. It was impractical, in most cases, to try the owners of smuggling ships since they abode overseas. Therefore, the ships and cargo of smugglers were seized as the next-best thing.
With only a few minor exceptions during the Civil War and under Prohibition, civil forfeiture long remained a "legal backwater" that was barely ever used. In the 1980s, however, in the name of winning the War on Drugs, civil forfeiture rose to prominence.
In 1984, Congress established the Assets Forfeiture Fund. This allowed federal law enforcement agencies to keep and spend the proceeds seized by civil forfeiture. Previously, what little civil forfeiture funds existed had to go to the government's general fund. This direct financial incentive to find more civil forfeiture funds had only very loose and ineffective restrictions placed upon it.
Changes in state laws soon followed, and today, law enforcement agencies in 42 states are allowed by state law to keep and use all or part of the civil forfeiture proceeds they seize control of.
The Dangers of Civil Forfeiture
There has been an veritable explosion in civil forfeiture incidents since the legal changes in the '80s and subsequently opened the floodgates to abuse. Our Constitution demands that police and prosecutors fairly and impartially enforce the law, but civil forfeiture creates a new, dangerous goal - the pursuit of private property for direct profiteering. As many legal procedures make civil forfeiture relatively easy for governments to perform, there are few restraints to discourage abuse of power.
Four specific ways in which civil forfeiture puts private property owners at an unfair disadvantage are:
- The burden of proof on the government is reduced. The government merely must prove that your property was connected in some way with a criminal act. In a normal trial, i.e. under criminal forfeiture rules, the government would be required to prove you guilty of misconduct- and beyond all reasonable doubt. As presently practiced, civil forfeiture allows the government to win its cases based on far less demanding standards of evidence than are accepted in criminal proceedings.
- You are "guilty until proven innocent." In many jurisdictions, an owner's being innocent and fully unaware that their property was involved in a crime is a legitimate defense. However, this does little good since these jurisdictions also presume the guilt of the owners and expect them to prove themselves innocent.
- No legal representation must be provided for the accused. The government is obligated to provide a criminal defense attorney to defendants who cannot afford to hire one themselves. In civil forfeiture cases, however, you must either pay for your own lawyer, which often costs more than the value of the property at issue, or simply attempt defend yourself in court without any legal counsel.
- So-called "equitable" sharing is a federal law that provides a legal loophole for state law enforcement agencies located in states with tougher-to-abuse civil forfeiture laws. This program allows the state agency to turn over seized assets to the federal government, which then proceeds to forfeit the property under federal law. This is done because state law would not allow the seizure. The federal government then takes 20% of the proceeds and hands over 80% to the state agency. The state agency gets to keep the money even in states where civil forfeiture funds are supposed to all go into that state's general fund.
The power of law enforcement agencies to use civil forfeiture as an excuse to seize and keep private property for their own use, besides being objectionable in itself, also creates agencies with "off budget" fund sources. Requiring agencies to report the proceeds and the manner in which they are spent seems an obvious reform we should all be able to agree on, but many states do not even require this on paper much less enforce it. Even when accountability for civil forfeiture fund usage is required by state law, many agencies simply choose to ignore such duties. Thus, abuse can be done with impunity and is running rampant.
Asset Forfeiture Defense
It is time to end civil forfeiture. No one ought lose his/her property without due process of law, meaning conviction for a crime that legitimately forfeits a property claim. Law enforcement must not be allowed to profit from seizing private assets at will in the name of civil forfeiture.
If you are involved in a pending civil forfeiture case and need an attorney who knows how to fight wrongful civil forfeiture and help you get your property back, Jacek Lentz is an asset forfeiture attorney you can count on to assist you in your time of need. Call toll-free today at 888-571-5590 for further information and for immediate attention to your case.