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Asset forfeiture or asset seizure is a form of confiscation of assets by the state, pursuant to law. It typically applies to the alleged proceeds or instrumentalities[Note 1] of crime. Some jurisdictions specifically use the term "confiscation" instead of forfeiture. Civil and administrative asset forfeiture, or forfeiture without a conviction and sometimes in the absence of evidence, both draw major criticism.
Civil and criminal law
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Most legal systems distinguish between the criminal and the civil, generally using separate courts, different procedures and different evidentiary rules. The traditional view is that crimes are public wrongs and that the criminal law addresses those who harm society through morally culpable acts in order that punishment may be imposed and potential offenders may thereby be deterred from committing similar offenses. Criminal proceedings are therefore “officially designated ceremonies of guilt designation” and the label “criminal” carries with it a social stigma, which is not imposed on the losing party in a civil action. Because of this stigma and the potential punishment, which may be imposed by a criminal court, legal systems provide procedural protections above those available to a respondent in a civil case. For example, criminal proceedings require a higher standard of proof.
The bringing of civil proceedings is, by comparison, primarily the forum for a wronged private individual. Nevertheless this too is not an absolute position, as the state also may sue in the civil courts as a wronged individual, for example, in respect of a contractual dispute with a multinational company. Civil law does not aim to punish, but rather is designed to provide two types of remedy. First, it provides a remedy requiring a return to the way things were, the status quo ante, so as to restore the position of an injured party. Second, it provides a remedy to compensate an injured party for harm done to him.
While the traditional view of civil and criminal proceedings might be described as neighboring countries divided by a common border, this dichotomy is not as distinct as that metaphor might suggest. In recent years there has been a growing homogeneity between criminal and civil procedures. Criminal cases now often involve civil, or quasi-civil, procedures and some civil litigation has become quasi-criminal. Indeed it has been said that almost every attribute associated with the criminal law also appears in civil law and vice versa. This “significant disintegration of the wall between criminal and civil proceedings” has occurred on a number of fronts and is due, at least in part, to the fact that multiple strategies are now used to deal with crime. An early example was the use of injunctions to protect victims of domestic violence, even though, to obtain such an injunction, the plaintiff may be alleging the commission of a criminal assault. Rather than the traditional dichotomize perspective therefore, legal proceedings might be better seen as a continuum, with distinctly civil proceedings at one end and clearly criminal proceedings at the other. Between the two ends of the continuum are a range of possibilities, each of which may be more or less criminal or civil.
Civil asset forfeiture has been harshly criticized by civil liberties advocates for its greatly reduced standards for conviction, reverse onus, and financial conflicts of interests arising when the law enforcement agencies who decide whether or not to seize assets stand to keep those assets for themselves.
Proponents of seizure suggest that it is a necessary tool to prevent drug trafficking or other crimes. Statistics submitted by the South African Police during the civil asset forfeiture trial of Simon Prophet indicate that civil asset forfeiture has failed to prevent methamphetamine drug crime in South Africa. Former United States president George H. W. Bush said, "Asset forfeiture laws allow [the government] to take the alleged ill-gotten gains of drug kingpins and use them to put more cops on the streets."
In April 2014, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union enacted Directive 2014/42/EU on the freezing and confiscation of proceeds of crime in the European Union. The directive allows the seizure and confiscation of property without a criminal conviction only under very specific circumstances. Article 4 states:
- Member States shall take the necessary measures to enable the confiscation, either in whole or in part, of instrumentalities and proceeds or property the value of which corresponds to such instrumentalities or proceeds, subject to a final conviction for a criminal offence, which may also result from proceedings in absentia.
- Where confiscation on the basis of paragraph 1 is not possible, at least where such impossibility is the result of illness or absconding of the suspected or accused person, Member States shall take the necessary measures to enable the confiscation of instrumentalities and proceeds in cases where criminal proceedings have been initiated regarding a criminal offence which is liable to give rise, directly or indirectly, to economic benefit, and such proceedings could have led to a criminal conviction if the suspected or accused person had been able to stand trial.
Ireland was one of the first countries to introduce asset forfeiture in the form of a statutory body. The Criminal Assets Bureau can initiate forfeiture proceedings whereas the Director of Public Prosecutions can initiate confiscation proceedings. The regime was set up following the enactments of the Proceeds of Crime Act 1996 and the Criminal Assets Bureau Act 1996 in response to the murder of investigative journalist Veronica Guerin, who was investigating, and became a victim of, Irish organised crime.
In the UK asset forfeiture proceedings are initiated under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. These fall into various types. Firstly there are confiscation proceedings. A confiscation order is a court order made in the Crown Court requiring a convicted defendant to pay a specified amount of money to the state by a specified date. Secondly, there are cash forfeiture proceedings, which take place (in England and Wales) in the Magistrates Court with a right of appeal to the Crown Court, having been brought by either the police or Customs. Thirdly, there are civil recovery proceedings that are brought by the National Crime Agency "NCA". Neither cash forfeiture proceedings nor proceedings for a civil recovery order require a prior criminal conviction.
In Scotland, confiscation proceedings are initiated by the procurator fiscal or Lord Advocate through the Sheriff Court or High Court of Justiciary. Cash forfeiture and civil recovery are brought by the Civil Recovery Unit of the Scottish Government in the Sheriff court, with appeals to the Court of Session.
Part XII.2 of the Criminal Code of Canada provides a national forfeiture régime for property arising from the commission of a designated offence (i.e., most indictable offences), subsequent to conviction. Provision is also made for the use of restraint and management orders to govern such property during the course of a criminal proceeding.
All provinces except Prince Edward Island, the Yukon Territory and Newfoundland and Labrador have also enacted statutes to provide for similar civil forfeiture régimes. These generally provide, on a balance of probabilities basis, for the seizure of property:
- acquired from the results of unlawful activity, or
- is likely to be used to engage in unlawful activity
The Supreme Court of Canada has upheld civil forfeiture laws as a valid exercise of the provincial government power over property and civil rights. The extent to which the Charter of Rights and Freedoms applies to civil forfeiture statutes is still under dispute. To the extent that such laws are applied for a "punitive" purpose, there is case law to suggest that the Charter applies. In cases where evidence has been obtained illegally, courts in Alberta and British Columbia have excluded such evidence.
United Nations Convention against Corruption
In order to facilitate international cooperation in confiscation, the United Nations Convention against Corruption encourages state parties to consider taking the necessary measures to allow confiscation of the proceeds of corruption without a criminal conviction in cases in which the offender cannot be prosecuted by reason of death, flight or absence or in other appropriate cases.
There are two types of forfeiture cases, criminal and civil. Approximately half of all forfeiture cases practiced today are civil, although many of those are filed in parallel to a related criminal case. In civil forfeiture cases, the US Government sues the item of property, not the person; the owner is effectively a third-party claimant. The burden is on the Government to establish that the property is subject to forfeiture by a "preponderance of the evidence." If it is successful, the owner may yet prevail by establishing an "innocent owner" defense.
Federal civil forfeiture cases usually start with a seizure of property followed by the mailing of a notice of seizure from the seizing agency (generally the DEA of FBI) to the owner. The owner then has 35 days to file a claim with the seizing agency. The owner must file this claim in order to later protect his property in court. Once the claim is filed with the agency, the U.S. Attorney has 90 days to review the claim and to file a civil complaint in U.S. District Court. The owner then has 30 days to file a judicial claim in court asserting his ownership interest. Within 20 days of filing the judicial claim, the owner must also file an answer denying the allegations in the complaint. Once done, the forfeiture case is fully litigated in court.
In civil cases, the owner need not be judged guilty of any crime; it is possible for the Government to prevail by proving that someone other than the owner used the property to commit a crime. In contrast, criminal forfeiture is usually carried out in a sentence following a conviction and is a punitive act against the offender.
The United States Marshals Service is responsible for managing and disposing of properties seized and forfeited by Department of Justice agencies. It currently manages around $2.4 billion worth of property. The United States Treasury Department is responsible for managing and disposing of properties seized by Treasury agencies. The goal of both programs is to maximize the net return from seized property by selling at auctions and to the private sector and then using the property and proceeds for law enforcement purposes.
- For more, see Category:United States civil forfeiture case law
- In 1965, the United States Supreme Court overturned the seizure of a vehicle by the Government of Pennsylvania in One 1958 Plymouth Sedan v. Pennsylvania seized using illegally obtained evidence.
- In 1996, the Supreme Court in Bennis v. Michigan upheld the seizure of a vehicle as contraband, despite the owner's use of the innocent owner defense.
- USA v. $124,700 August 18, 2006 case from the Eighth Circuit Court on civil forfeiture of $124,700
- After the Madoff investment scandal had surfaced, Bernard Madoff was ordered to forfeit $170 billion, although it is believed that he did not have anywhere close to that amount. His wife, Ruth, although not charged, agreed to forfeit about $80 million in assets.
- In 2009, Lloyds Bank forfeited $350 million in connection with violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) (falsified outgoing wire transfers to persons on U.S. sanctions lists).
- In 2009, Credit Suisse, a Swiss corporation, forfeited $536 million in connection with violations of IEEPA.
- In 2010, Barclays Bank forfeited $298 million in connection with violations of the IEEPA and the Trading with the Enemy Act.
- In 2010, ABN Amro Bank forfeited $500 million in connection with violations of the IEEPA and the Trading with the Enemy Act.
- In 2013, an appellate court overruled the civil forfeiture of Motel Caswell by Boston-area federal prosecutors in United States v. 434 Main Street, Tewksbury, Mass. Despite a number of previous drug crimes committed on the property by outside parties, the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts ruled that the "resolution of the crime problem should not be to simply take [the owner's] Property."
- On April 17, 2014, the State of Texas seized the YFZ Ranch, a one time Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) community that housed as many as 700 people when it was raided by Texas on March 29, 2008. Under Texas law, authorities can seize property that was used to commit or facilitate certain criminal conduct.
- Asset freezing
- Civil forfeiture in the United States
- Eminent domain
- Equitable sharing
- Forfeiture (law)
- Forfeiture Endangers American Rights – U.S. anti-forfeiture activist organization
- Operation Protect Our Children
- Sheriffs in the United States
- United States Marshals Service
- Instrumentalities are property that was allegedly used to facilitate crime, for example cars allegedly used to transport illegal narcotics.
- "The Forfeiture Racket". Reason.com. Retrieved 2013-06-18.
- "A truck in the dock". The Economist. May 27, 2010.
- Kevin Drum (2010-04-07). "Civil Asset Forfeiture". Mother Jones. Retrieved 2013-06-18.
- Judy Osburn. "Forfeiture Endangers American Rights". FEAR. Retrieved 2013-06-18.
- Directive 2014/42/EU on the freezing and confiscation of instrumentalities and proceeds of crime in the European Union
- Nielsen, Nikolaj (25 February 2014). "EU to donate criminal assets to charity". EUobserver.
- "European Parliament Passes New EU Rules To Crack Down On Crime Profits". RTTNews. 25 February 2014.
- "How seizing criminal assets could leave everyone better off - except criminals". European Parliament. 25 February 2014.
- "Cecilia Malmström welcomes European Parliament's vote on new EU rules to crack down on crime profits" (Press release). European Commission. 25 February 2014.
- "Making it easier to confiscate criminal assets EU-wide" (Press release). EPP Group. EurActiv. 25 February 2014.
- "Criminal Code, Part XII.2". Retrieved 2012-04-29.
- John Thompson (2010-05-07). "Fighting civil forfeiture". Yukon News. Retrieved 2013-06-18.
- Joshua Alan Krane (2010). "Forfeited: Civil Forfeiture and the Canadian Constitution". Retrieved 2012-04-29.
- "Civil Forfeiture in Ontario". Retrieved 2012-04-29.
- Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the freezing and confiscation of proceeds of crime in the European Union (COM/2012/085) at EUR-Lex
- United Nations Convention against Corruption § 54(1)(c)
- 18 United States Code 983(a) & Rule G, Supplemental Rules for Admiralty or Maritime Claims and Asset Forfeiture Actions
- "Report: Ruth Madoff Agrees To Forfeit $80M". CBS News. June 28, 2009.
- "Justice.gov". Justice.gov. 2009-01-09. Retrieved 2013-06-18.
- "Justice.gov". Justice.gov. 2009-12-16. Retrieved 2013-06-18.
- "Newyork.fbi.gov". Newyork.fbi.gov. Retrieved 2013-06-18.
- "Financialtaskforce.org". Financialtaskforce.org. 2010-05-10. Retrieved 2013-06-18.
- "Triumphant motel owner slams Carmen Ortiz". Boston Herald. 2013-08-07. Retrieved 2013-08-07.
- "Texas Seizes Polygamist Warren Jeffs' Ranch". Eldorado, Texas: The Associated Press. April 17, 2014. Retrieved April 18, 2014.
- Carlisle, Nate (April 17, 2014). "Texas takes possession of polygamous ranch". The Salt Lake Tribune (Eldorado, Texas: MediaNews Group). Retrieved April 17, 2014.
- Levy, Leonard Williams (1996). A License to Steal: The Forfeiture of Property. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-2242-6.
- Stillman, Sarah (2013). ["http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/08/12/130812fa_fact_stillman?currentPage=all" "The Use and Abuse of Civil Forfeiture"]. The New Yorker.
- The Looting of America, leaflet published by International Society for Individual Liberty
- Introduction to forfeiture laws, by Legal Information Institute, Cornell University
- List of offenses that trigger federal forfeiture More
- Judge David Demers – Search & Seizure Outline
- South Africa's Constitutional Safeguards are in Tatters
- Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000
- Crime and Forfeiture Congressional Research Service
- Simon Prophet defends his home