New Scrutiny of Civil Forfeiture Laws

The Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) released a report on March 29, 2017, faulting the DOJ for failing to systematically evaluate its forfeiture data to determine the extent to which seizures benefit law enforcement efforts or present potential risks to civil liberties.  While the Inspector General’s (“IG’s”) report specifically focused on the forfeiture activities of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), its conclusions may likely be extended to other arenas in which the federal government initiates civil forfeiture activities, including white collar crime. 

Civil forfeiture laws allow the federal government to initiate proceedings to seize (and sell or keep) assets such as cash, bank accounts, and real property, based on the suspicion that the property is associated with criminal proceedings.  The owner of the property need not be convicted or even charged with a crime in order to be subject to forfeiture, and because the proceedings are civil in nature, property owners receive few of the Constitutional protections guaranteed to criminal defendants.

The IG’s report identified three specific areas for improvement: 1) the DOJ does not measure how its asset seizures and forfeitures advance criminal investigations; 2) the DEA conducts cash seizures that may not advance or even relate to criminal investigations, and may pose risks to civil liberties; and 3) the DOJ does not require its state and local task force officers to receive training on federal asset seizure and forfeiture laws prior to conducting federal seizures.

In a memo responding to the findings, Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Blanco criticized the IG’s findings, arguing that the IG took a sample that was not representative of broader Justice Department practices and drew faulty conclusions based on mistakenly analyzed data, according to the Washington Post.

Notwithstanding the Acting Assistant Attorney General’s comments, the IG’s report may give property owners ammunition to successfully challenge the civil forfeiture of their cash, bank accounts, or real property – particularly where the government is unable to demonstrate a strong link between the forfeiture proceedings and an ongoing criminal investigation.

Individuals facing criminal or civil forfeiture should immediately contact an attorney who can protect their property rights.  The attorneys in the White Collar Practice Group at Duane Morris are very experienced at challenging civil and criminal forfeiture actions.

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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