Law enforcement in the United States has used a wide range of tactics to counter the success of crimes committed by individuals and criminal organizations. Everyone knows that people charged and convicted of criminal activity can be sent to prison and fined. But most people don’t know that the U.S. government can take your assets and keep them even when you are not convicted of any crime.
Under the law of “civil asset forfeiture,” law enforcement has the authority to confiscate money and other property it believes was involved in or is the product of crime. The law does not require that the owner of the property be arrested or charged with a crime. The legal theory behind the law of “civil asset forfeiture” is that the “property is guilty.”
The asset forfeiture process was established to deny the profits of crime to those who engage in criminal activity.
While prison is a serious deterrent for most would-be lawbreakers, others accept occasional prison sentences as part of their business. Their consolation is knowing they have all their profits when they get released. Civil forfeiture is designed to counter that attitude.
To understand and fight a civil asset forfeiture, the owner of the seized property needs to be represented by an experienced asset forfeiture defense attorney who devotes their legal career to criminal defense. The Law Firm of Stechschulte Nell in Tampa successfully handles civil asset seizure and forfeiture proceedings. If you need effective professional legal representation to regain possession of property seized by the federal government, contact our office for immediate help.
Federal Asset Seizure and Forfeiture Law
State and federal law enforcement officers “seize” assets and property in several circumstances. Often, during the execution of a valid search warrant, officers will discover large amounts of cash, jewelry, or valuable cars, boats, and other luxury items. On other occasions, police find large sums of cash when they pull over a driver during an investigation of other suspected crimes.
Generally, the police should obtain a warrant supported by an affidavit detailing the grounds on which they believe probable cause exists that the assets to be seized were used in the commission of a crime or were purchased with the profits from criminal activity. The person who owns or possesses the asset does not need to be convicted of any offense for the government to win a forfeiture case.
Charging the Asset with Guilt
Once a law enforcement officer seizes a person’s assets, either with or without a warrant, the government literally sues the property. A civil lawsuit naming the asset as a defendant is filed and served on the person from whom the asset was seized or the known owner of the property. The owner of the property then has 21 days to file a formal answer or a motion to dismiss the complaint.
The Burden of Proof in a Civil Asset Forfeiture Case
Unlike a criminal case in which the government has the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, a civil forfeiture case has a lower burden of proof, proof by a preponderance of the evidence. But it is not the government that has the burden of proof in civil asset forfeiture cases; the property owner has the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the assets are “innocent.”
The Innocent Owner Defense
The owner of the seized assets must file a sworn statement attesting to their interest in the seized property and explaining the facts proving that they were not aware of the property’s use or involvement in the commission of the crime. If they became the owners of the asset following the criminal activity, then the person claiming ownership and demanding the property’s return must show that they did not know of the asset’s criminal history and that they paid fair value for the asset in good faith.
When determining whether the owner knew of the asset’s connection to criminal activity, the government cannot rely on the legal concept of “constructive knowledge.”
Constructive knowledge means the owner of the property
“should have known” something.
In a forfeiture hearing, the government prevails if the owner of the asset had “actual” knowledge of the criminal activity’s connection to the asset.
If the person demanding the return of the asset succeeds in persuading a federal trial jury by a preponderance of the evidence that they were unaware of the criminal connection to the property, then they should prevail and regain possession. However, if they are unable to “prove their innocence,” then the judge may sustain the government’s complaint and order the forfeiture of the assets.
Other Grounds to Contest Civil Asset Forfeiture
The “innocent owner defense” is a compelling one if the facts are in the asset owner’s favor. However, even if the owner of the property was aware that the property was used in a crime or is the fruit of criminal activity, they still have ways to assert their legal rights to their property.
- Challenge the legality of the police search and/or seizure of the property
- Challenging forfeiture on grounds of undue delay (see Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1972))
- Entrapment of the owner in using the asset in the commission of a crime
- Government waited too long to bring forfeiture action (Statute of limitations is 2 years from the date of the crime involving the asset, or 5 years from the date the violation of law was discovered)
Learn More > Can Police Search Your Garbage?
Get Experienced Civil Asset Forfeiture Defense Attorneys
The Civil Asset Forfeiture proceeding conducted in federal court is not a typical civil case. To obtain the most experienced legal representation in a civil asset forfeiture case, you should seek the advice of an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer immediately.
Criminal defense lawyers frequently deal with seizures of property by police from clients who do not understand the civil forfeiture process. They are not aware of the fact that police departments throughout the country profit substantially from these processes because they get to keep a share of the money obtained through forfeiture proceedings.
The clock begins to run the moment a property owner is served with a forfeiture complaint, and your defense lawyer must be notified right away to prepare the necessary information and documents to protect your legal property rights. Don’t delay when your property is seized any more than you would if you were arrested. Call today; 813-280-1244.