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Federal civil asset forfeiture is a form of property confiscation by the state. It is used to obtain the possible instruments or alleged proceeds of criminal activity. This can occur in cases involving civil and criminal offenses, terrorist activities, drug-related crimes and more. The goal of asset forfeiture is to disrupt criminal activity. Confiscating the assets that benefit the criminal behavior of an organization or individual is intended to decrease such criminal activity.
Types of Forfeiture
Under federal law, there are three different types of forfeiture. They are criminal, civil judicial as well as administrative forfeiture.
*Criminal Forfeiture – This will happen as a part of the criminal prosecution of an individual or organization accused of a federal crime. This is an action that makes it necessary for the government to indict property utilized or derived from the crime alleged to have been committed by the defendant. In a criminal forfeiture, the defendant does have the right to contest the asset seizure using trial proceedings.
*Civil Judicial Forfeiture – This is a judicial process. A criminal conviction is not required. It is considered a legal tool that enables law enforcement to confiscate any property believed to have been involved in a crime. This is considered an action filed against the property and not a person or organization. This type of forfeiture can also be contested using a trial proceeding.
*Administrative Forfeiture – Most of the cases involving federal forfeiture are uncontested. This happened even if it is associated with a criminal case. Administrative forfeiture happens when property is seized, but there is no claim submitted to contest the seizure. Certain types of property may be administratively forfeited. It includes property that is not more than $500,000 in value, a conveyance utilized to transport, import, or store a controlled substance as well as merchandise legally prohibited from importation. According to federal law, there are strict notification requirements and deadlines required during this forfeiture process. Should the seizure be contested, then the government of the United States must participate in a civil or criminal forfeiture proceeding.
Using Forfeited Assets
All over the United States, there are forfeited assets being utilized to help law enforcement and support communities. Here are examples of some ways forfeited assets have been utilized.
*Purchase of defibrillators
*Refurbish shelter for victims of child abuse
*Provide drug treatment facilities
*Equipment for 911 call centers
*Fund job skills programs
*Body cameras and bulletproof vests for law enforcement
*Salaries for school resource officers
*Rescue kits to help victims of an overdose
*Purchasing bomb-sniffing dogs
Innocent Owner Defense
Unfortunately, a person can be innocent and still have their assets seized. Once an innocent person or organization have their assets seized, there is no legal requirement for their assets to be returned to them. The United States Supreme Court has ruled the innocent owner defense is not a constitutional requirement. Two things that must be proven before property can be returned.
1. A person or organization must establish they were not involved in any type of criminal activity.
2. It must also be established a person or organization had no knowledge their asset was being utilized to facilitate the commission of a crime. It must also be proven the person or organization took necessary steps in their circumstances to stop any such use. The success rate of winning back assets is low. Many times, the person or organization that owned the property finds it too much trouble to pursue. They move on rather than try to overturn a forfeiture using the court system.
This program makes it possible for local law enforcement officials to work with federal law enforcement to seize property using federal forfeiture laws. This happens even when state laws may not permit these types of seizures. Using the equitable sharing program, local law enforcement agencies can keep a portion of the proceeds when they seize assets using federal forfeiture laws. The rest is given to the federal government. In this way, local law enforcement can bypass state law and benefit from federal civil asset forfeitures.
Challenging Asset Forfeiture
In many cases, if a victim challenges a property seizure, it is possible for a prosecutor to return half of the seized assets. This is done in exchange for not suing. This also happens with local police departments who return seized assets in exchange or a promise to not bring a lawsuit against the police department. It is estimated that only one percent of assets seized during a forfeiture are ever returned to their original owners.
There are a number of legal defenses that have been successfully used against a federal civil asset forfeiture. In court, the government will have the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the assets seized were used in specific illegal activities. The owners of the assets may succeed with an affirmative defense. They may be able to prove the assets were used in criminal activity without their knowledge or permission. An experienced New York City criminal defense lawyer will know how to defend the victim of an unlawful federal civil asset seizure. They will know how to secure the seized property and make their clients whole again.