I've been involved in many cases that include a civil forfeiture aspect, both as a prosecutor and a defense attorney. Put simply, civil forfeiture is where the police seize property because they think it has been used in a crime. The onus is on the owner of the property to prove their innocence or else the property is forfeited (turned over) to the government. As found in Reason magazine:
Under civil forfeiture, police can seize property from people who are never convicted—much less charged with—a crime. Unlike criminal forfeiture, where the government must prove property was used in the commission of crime, civil forfeiture law presumes an owner’s guilt.
Civil forfeiture is a national problem. Law enforcement agencies seize millions of dollars worth of property each year with little or no due process for owners. In all but six states property owners are considered guilty until proven innocent. State law typically allows law enforcement to keep most or all of the proceeds from forfeiture—an enormous incentive to police for profit.
In theory, the government uses asset forfeiture to strip criminal enterprises of resources and “toys”—the cars, planes, boats, and homes that make the illicit life look glamorous. But a glance at the legal notices the department publishes periodically in The Washington Times reveals the city is hardly targeting kingpins. A notice from last September lists these cars: a 1985 Chevrolet, a 1994 BMW, a 1999 Lincoln, a 1994 Lexus, a 1991 Honda, and a 2001 Chevrolet. Most seizures are of cash—generally less than $100 and as little as $7—taken from thousands of people each year.
If you find yourself facing civil forfeiture, keep these points in mind:
- You must act quickly. Your time to file a response is limited. If you don't file a response, your property is gone.
- You do not get a free lawyer. Remember, this is CIVIL, not criminal, so even if you were willing to take your chances with a public defender, you can't get one.
- Suits cost money. Before fighting a forfeiture, discuss costs with your attorney and make sure whatever you are fighting for is worth it. You don't want to "spend dollars to get dimes."