The topic of federal civil asset forfeiture has been in the news recently. Just last week, the U.S. Department of Justice stated that they are attempting to seize artwork by Monet and Warhol in an attempt to recoup $96 million involved in an alleged money-laundering scandal. Many analysts and legal experts are wondering if Congress will vote to end federal civil asset forfeiture.
What is Federal Civil Asset Forfeiture?
Federal civil asset forfeiture happens when the federal government seizes or takes assets from a person who is suspected of engaging in illegal activity. Civil asset forfeiture usually involves a dispute with a law enforcement agency and property, such as a boat, house, or cash. Owners typically need to prove that they were not involved in any type of illicit activity in order to get their seized property or assets back.
Those who support civil forfeiture claim that the process allows people to stop crime organizations in the illegal drug trade. The process allows law enforcement to seize assets and cash from suspected drug traffickers.
The Problem with Civil Asset Forfeiture
Federal civil asset forfeiture is controversial because it allows government agencies to seize a person’s assets before they have even charged the suspect with a crime. Unfortunately, many innocent people have been negatively affected by the process of federal civil asset forfeiture because it allows the federal government to seize property without ever filing criminal charges.
Innocent people can permanently lose their property and assets without a judge ever listening to their case in court. The federal agency that seized the property is in charge of deciding whether they will return the property, with no oversight from a judge or outside agency. Federal law allows governments to keep 100% of the proceeds that have been forfeited.
The Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act
Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky introduced a bill at the beginning of July that would enact a sweeping overhaul of federal civil forfeiture laws. The Act would make sure that federal government agencies no longer make a profit by taking the property of American citizens without engaging in due process. The Act will also allow courts to order that government agencies surrender the assets when appropriate.
The Lack of Safeguards in Civil Asset Forfeiture
Many federal nonjudicial forfeiture cases happen without any safeguards. Many federal civil forfeiture cases are purely administrative. Sadly, 76% of all civil forfeitures that have been conducted by the Justice Department were nonjudicial, meaning a judge has not heard the case.
Unlike with criminal forfeitures, civil forfeitures happen without the suspect facing any criminal charges. Only 13% of forfeitures by the DOJ happened after the owner had been convicted in court. Between the fiscal year 2017 and 2016, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency seized $3.2 billion in assets from 65,000 seizures of cash. The DEA only gave back $153 million in assets in 6,724 cases.
Critics of civil asset forfeiture have pointed out that the lack of oversight and safeguards gives law enforcement an incentive to deny suspects due process. Should the FAIR Act become law, the rights of citizens will be restored. Senator Paul introduced the FAIR Act as a bill that stands alone, but he also stated that he would attach it to an amendment to whatever types of police reform legislation that the Senate is considering.
What Would the FAIR Act do?
The FAIR Act states that “no federal seizing agency may conduct nonjudicial forfeitures” or “start a forfeiture without judicial involvement.” Federal law enforcement agencies could no longer start the process of seizing assets without involvement from a court of law. As of right now, only 10% of all civil forfeiture cases involve oversight from a court of law. Should the FAIR Act become law, that number would change and require judicial oversight in most cases.
The FAIR Act would also make it more difficult for the government to prove that the owners had knowledge about the illegal use of their property. The law would make the burden of proof even higher. Additionally, the Act would take away the incentive for agencies to seize private property.
For example, instead of keeping the seized money, an agency will need to transfer the assets to the Treasury’s General Fund. Proponents of the Act point out that taking away the incentive to keep the funds will help law enforcement agencies focus on protecting the rights of citizens and respecting the judicial process.
What to do if You Have Experienced a Federal Civil Asset Forfeiture
As we have explained above, the federal government can seize your property even if you have not been convicted of a crime. Civil forfeiture gives the government the right to confiscate homes, cars, money, and any other property that they suspect is involved in criminal activity. Until an Act such as the FAIR Act becomes law, we are all at risk of losing our assets unjustly in a civil forfeiture.
The stakes are extremely high in civil forfeiture cases. It can be incredibly difficult to get your property back once it has been seized. The federal government is currently required to follow the guidelines set forth in federal law. They must provide a notice to all interested parties, meaning the owners, of the seized property in writing and within 60 days of the seizure. You will have the opportunity to respond to the notice of civil forfeiture. The federal government must take certain steps within 90 days.
Contact Our Federal Civil Forfeiture Lawyers Today
Finding out that the government has seized your assets can be devastating. If the federal government has seized your assets, it is important to speak with an experienced lawyer as soon as possible. At the Law Offices of Steven Jumes, our Fort Worth, Texas, lawyers will advocate fiercely for your rights. Contact us as soon as possible to schedule your initial consultation.