Asset forfeiture laws allow the federal government and state governments to seize property that has been used in the commission of a crime, or was obtained through criminal activity. Obvious examples of such property are drug money, cars or boats used to transport drugs, or weapons. However, personal property which may be only tangentially related to illegal activity may also be seized, such as homes and businesses.
There are 2 basic types of asset forfeiture used in the United States: criminal forfeiture and civil forfeiture.
Criminal forfeiture is the less common of the two. It usually takes place after someone has been convicted of a crime, and is treated as part of the punishment.
Civil forfeiture is different. It does not operate through the criminal justice system. Rather, the government essentially sues the property to gain possession of it. This leads to some strange case names, such as “United States v. $100,000 in U.S. Currency”, “California v. 500 Cedar Street”, or “United States v. A 1965 Ford Mustang”.
If a state or federal government suspects that a piece of property is being used to commit a crime, they simply need to present “probable cause” that this suspicion is true. This is a very low standard of proof. It usually defined as a reasonable belief. Once this standard is met by the government, the owner of the property has the burden of proving that it was not used to commit a crime. They must prove this by a preponderance of the evidence. While this is a fairly low standard of proof (defined as a showing that something is more likely true than false), it is almost always difficult to prove a negative.
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Last Modified: 12-28-2011 02:42 PM PST
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