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Civil asset forfeiture – the basics

Imagine that you are going to buy a car, not from a dealership, but from a private seller. Since there will be no financing involved, you withdraw $30,000 in cash and take it with you to meet the seller.

On the way there, a Minneapolis police officer stops you for a minor traffic violation. In the course of the traffic stop, the officer notices some of the cash protruding from a bag and begins to question you about the reason you are carrying so much money. Unfortunately, the office does not believe your story about purchasing a car and seizes the cash.

When an officer suspects that an individual is using cash or other property to commit a crime, the officer can seize that property under civil asset forfeiture laws. Here are the basics of civil asset forfeiture so that you can have a better understanding if it happens to you.

Criminal asset forfeiture vs. civil asset forfeiture

In a criminal asset forfeiture situation, law enforcement will seize property only after the individual has been convicted of a crime. In contrast, a civil asset forfeiture does not require a conviction or even for an officer to charge the individual with a criminal offense.

In most cases, these types of forfeitures involve illegal drug activities or organized crime. Usually, the government will file a lawsuit against the property itself. Since it is a civil case, the standard of proof the plaintiff requires is much lower than what the prosecution generally must provide in a criminal case.

In addition, there is a chance that the property will not revert to the owner even if they are acquitted of a crime that is related to the property. Typically, the government will auction off the property and the proceeds will go directly to the police department that was responsible for seizing the property.

Federal laws

Various federal law enforcement agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) will often use civil asset forfeiture during a criminal investigation. Federal law requires that the agency that seized the property provide written notice to the property owners within 60 days of taking the property.

However, courts will often grant an extension. The property owner also has a right to send a claim to the agency that seized the property. This starts a 90-day clock for the government to either move forward with filing a lawsuit against the property or filing criminal charges against the owner. If the government does not take any action, the property must be released back to the owner.

If law enforcement officers have seized your property, you could be facing a civil asset forfeiture situation. Keep in mind that you still have rights whether you are facing criminal charges or a lawsuit against your seized property.

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