Civil forfeiture is a civil, non-criminal, process where the government permanently takes away a person’s property without compensation because the property is allegedly connected to a crime. Laws governing civil forfeiture are often different from state to state. Also, there are differences between federal and state forfeiture laws.
There has been a great deal of criticism of civil forfeiture for a number of reasons. Critics argue that it is (i) too easy for law enforcement to initially seize property; (ii) too easy for the government to then permanently take the property; and that (iii) law enforcement agents engage in civil forfeiture for their own benefit.
I’ll focus on just a few points. First, the law allows the government to permanently take property which is connected to a crime. By “connected to a crime” I mean that a criminal used the property to commit a crime or bought the property with proceeds from a crime. For example, If a criminal sells illegal drugs and buys a car, the government may be able to permanently take the car as a proceed from the crime.
Forfeiture often starts with the government seizing the property. In our example above, if the police have probable cause to think the car was bought with proceeds from a crime, the police may be allowed to take the car. Probable cause here means a reasonable belief, which should be more than just a suspicion, hunch, or a guess. Critics argue that probable cause is too low a standard and makes it too easy for the police to initially seize property.
In a civil forfeiture, to permanently take the property, the government will often have to prove its case by a preponderance of the evidence. There does not have to be a criminal conviction. So, if the car owner in our example above were never convicted of a crime, the government may still bring a forfeiture action against the car. The government will have to prove that there is more evidence than not that the car was bought with proceeds from a crime. Critics argue that this makes it too easy for the government to take innocent people’s property and places too much of a burden on the property owner.
Below is a video on civil forfeiture.