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What Is Civil Asset Forfeiture?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 27 October 2016
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Civil asset forfeiture is the seizure of assets by the government if it suspects they were involved in the commission of a crime. While the parties to the crime are prosecuted in criminal court for their actions, the seizure of their property takes place in civil court, where standards of proof are lower, and it is up to the defendant to prove that the assets are innocent, rather than the government's responsibility to prove that they were used in a crime. This practice originated in the United States as part of that nation's attempt to curb the drug trade, and has since spread to other nations.

In an example of how civil asset forfeiture can work, if government officials mount a raid on a property where marijuana is grown and seize plants for destruction, they can also seize anything used in connection with the crime. This includes cultivation equipment, vehicles, scales, packaging supplies, and the property itself, on the grounds that without the property, the suspected criminal would not have been able to grow the marijuana. Civil asset forfeiture is also available for other drug cases, and in some regions has expanded to crimes like drunk driving and terrorism.

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Governments argue that civil asset forfeiture creates an additional risk of penalties that may lead criminals to think twice. The thought of jail time might be a concern, but the risk of losing real estate is an even bigger worry for some criminals, for example. The property, once seized, can be sold and used to finance further law enforcement activities. It may remain with local agencies or go to the national government, which can decide how to apply the funds. Thus, civil asset forfeiture increases law enforcement budgets, providing a mechanism for getting more police officers on the street and buying needed equipment.

Substantial criticisms of this practice have been advocated by civil rights advocates and organizations concerned with property rights. Some argue that it encourages “policing for profit,” by creating an incentive to seize assets, and that property may be seized from innocent people. Seizures can also sweep up property that is not used for criminal purposes, such as personal vehicles that were never involved in drug deals.

Laws about civil asset forfeiture vary depending on the region and the nation. Individuals facing civil suits for seizure of their assets should retain a lawyer to discuss their options and develop an aggressive defense if they want to retain their assets.

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