What Is Civil Asset Forfeiture? A Quick Guide

If you’ve been paying attention to current events at all over the last year or so, you’ve probably heard the term “civil asset forfeiture” being thrown around on occasion. While it’s not really talked about all that commonly, it’s been thrust back into the spotlight thanks to controversial actions by the Department of Justice, started last year. On this blog, we’ll discuss what this practice entails and what it might mean for you if you’ve been accused of a crime.

What Is Civil Asset Forfeiture?

First, the big question: what is civil asset forfeiture? Also known as “civil forfeiture” or “civil seizure,” this practice allows law enforcement or authorities to seize property from those accused of a crime, notably that which they suspect has a connection to the crime in question. The kicker is, however, that in many cases the property in question is seized without a warrant, and with nothing more than the person in question being placed under arrest.

Proponents of this practice argue that it’s a strong deterring to organized crime, such as the narcotics trade. The illegal drug trade is a $12 billion industry where the overwhelming majority of transactions are illegal. By enabling authorities to simply arrest and take away the assets associated with this drug trade, proponents argue they can use these assets to provide funding for their departments.

However, many additional people feel as though this setup is ripe for abuse, and sadly on many occasions they’ve been proven correct. Civil forfeiture doesn’t require that someone is proven guilty before seizing their assets, only that they be arrested on suspicion of being involved in the crime. With the arrest alone being enough to warrant an arrest, there is no due process required for the accused’s right to property is violated. In many cases, this more so means that the accused is presumed guilty rather than innocent, and thus they are required to prove their innocence and that the property has no illegal connections in order to get it back. In some cases, those who have had their property seized never actually had their property returned because it was processed and then used to fund the department, which critics have claimed is nothing more than legalized robbery by an authority figure.

Civil Forfeiture in Florida

This controversial practice varies widely from state to state, with different states having different laws regarding how much protection citizens are given. Nine states require nothing more than just “probable cause” or enough of a suspicion of a crime to make an arrest, in order to seize someone’s property. New Mexico is the only state to have completely abolished asset forfeiture entirely.

However, Florida is a particularly friendly state for the accused, being rated a seven out of nine on a scale created by the Institute for Justice (one being worst citizen protections, nine being best). Florida requires that someone be found guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” in order to be eligible to have their assets seized. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” is a standard of evidence which essentially states that the evidence presented shows that the prosecution’s case has been proven accurate in such a way that no reasonable person would harbor any “reasonable doubt” that the defendant is guilty. This doesn’t necessarily mean that someone needs to be convicted of the crime, but essentially one step before this level is enough burden of proof according to Florida law.

This does mean that Florida law does allow asset forfeiture, but it essentially mandates that someone be proven guilty to a high standard of evidence before this practice is allowed to take place. However, this does not exempt law enforcement from seizing property they wish to submit as evidence against you. For example, authorities can legally seize a murder weapon from someone they arrest on suspicion of the crime in order to determine if in fact it was the one in question.

If you have been arrested and had your property seized by law enforcement, it’s important that you have a Daytona Beach criminal defense attorney on your side to help you protect your rights and prevent you from falling victim to authorities and law enforcement acting outside their legally-prescribed boundaries.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to a skilled attorney at Hager & Schwartz, P.A. by calling us today at (386) 693-1637 for a case evaluation!
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