Definition of asset forfeiture
This article is about focuses on the confiscation/forfeiture of assets in common law countries.
Asset forfeiture is confiscation, by the State, of assets which are either (a) the alleged proceeds of crime or (b) the alleged instrumentalities of crime, and more recently, alleged terrorism. Instrumentalities of crime are property that was allegedly used to facilitate crime, for example cars allegedly used to transport illegal narcotics. The terminology used in different jurisdictions varies. Some jurisdictions use the term "confiscation" instead of forfeiture. In recent years there has been a growing trend for countries to introduce civil forfeiture and such proceedings may be brought in the USA, Australia, the UK, Ireland, Italy, South Africa, various Canadian Provinces and Antigua.
Asset forfeiture in the United States
There are two types of forfeiture cases, criminal and civil. Almost all forfeiture cases practiced today are civil. In civil forfeiture cases, the US Government sues the item of property, not the person; the owner is effectively a third party claimant. Once the government establishes probable cause that the property is subject to forfeiture, the owner must prove on a "preponderance of the evidence" that it is not. The owner need not be judged guilty of any crime. In contrast, criminal forfeiture is usually carried out in a sentence following a conviction and is a punitive act against the offender. Since the government can choose the type of case, a civil case is almost always chosen. The costs of such cases is high for the owner, usually totaling around $10,000 and can take up to three years.
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 $1 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.
A form of asset forfeiture is roadside forfeiture during a vehicle stop. Usually enforcing State policies by Highway police, local law enforcement have built up seized funds and spent them with oversight only from local judges who sometimes benefit from the expenditures of such funds. The presumption is that travelers hiding large amounts of cash are transporting drug money. Often, the vehicle occupants are required to simply sign a waiver that they will leave the State and not return, thus also not attempt to retrieve their funds. Some complain that this is law enforcement action requires more oversight in order to minimize the impact on travelers who are not involved in drug money but who simply wish to avoid further involvement with law enforcement agents and sign the waiver anyway. Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee is investigating the Tenaha, Texas Police seizures scandal.
The number of federal statutes giving the government the right to confiscate citizens' assets has nearly doubled since the 1990s, by one count. More than 400 federal statutes allow for forfeiture for a wide range of reasons, including violations of the Northern Pacific Halibut Act.
Asset forfeiture in the United Kingdom
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, which may follow a criminal conviction. 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 at the moment are brought by the Assets Recovery Agency "ARA". Under the Serious Crime Act 2007 ARA's functions will be transferred to the Serious Organized Crime Agency and the National Policing Improvement Agency. Neither cash 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.
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