What Is “Civil Asset Forfeiture”?

Civil Asset Forfeiture is a lawsuit filed by the State (or the Federal Government) to seize ownership of assets they claim were purchased with the proceeds from a crime, typically drug dealing.  Such lawsuits can be filed against cash, cars, homes or essentially anything else the government wants to seize.  Civil Asset Forfeiture suits have increased dramatically in recent years and are controversial for several reasons.  First, since they are civil cases, the burden of proof is the much lower “preponderance of evidence” standard, as opposed to the “proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard” in criminal cases.  This means that the government can forfeit property in cases where no criminal case has been filed, or even when the Defendant has been found not guilty.  Second, they can be used strategically by the government to deny defendants assets they need to make bail or hire lawyers.  Third, since civil asset forfeiture cases generate so much money (some of which goes directly to law-enforcement), a question is raised as to the motives of the government in filing suit.


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