What is Civil Forfeiture?

You may have heard the term before – "civil forfeiture." Also referred to as civil asset forfeiture, this legal position allows for a hotly-debated protocol in police operations. Want to learn more? Read on for the scoop.

Basic Definition

So, what exactly is civil forfeiture? Civil asset forfeiture is a legally provided right of law enforcement agencies to seize physical property from a crime suspect. The origins of this legal state lie in the fight against organized and syndicated crime. The idea that not only can an individual be seized when a crime is suspect, but also their belongings, is a powerful one to be certain.

How It Works

The way it works is this. If law enforcement suspects criminal activity to the extent that they are legally able, whether by warrant or not, to arrest someone, they may also seize any and all assets associated even remotely with that person's crimes. This includes the home, the business, land, vehicles, accounts, and all other possessions that may be deemed related in some way to the criminal activity. Upon arrest, this means that the suspect's belongings are then taken into custody simultaneously.

A hypothetical example of forfeiture at work could go something like this. John sells used cars at his used car lot in town. He often works on them himself in his garage at home before taking them into town to sell. At some point, the police come to believe that John is actually selling stolen cars as well as cars fitted with stolen parts.

The police then seek a warrant and come to John's home and in-town sales lot and arrest John. Because the police believe that illegal activity happened at his home and sales lot, these physical properties will likely be seized and taken into the possession of the acting law enforcement agency. The seizures here would then likely include John's cars and trucks, his sales lot, his home, and even all of the possession within them.

The Debate

Naturally, this power of law enforcement does come under some heavy fire in the realms of societal and governmental debate. This is because of the fact that this legal position truly rides on the edge of property protection assurances guaranteed in the United States Constitution. Constitutionally, our property is protected, but at what point does this protection expire? Should it ever be able to expire or to be overridden?

On one side of the debate, many feel that if you are not committing criminal acts, then you have nothing to worry about, and thus are safe. Many agree with this stance as well as the argument for preservation of evidence. Still, many others feel strongly that legally, this police allowance is an abuse of power and a violation of the individual citizen's rights. The American Civil Liberties Union is just one of the opponents to this legal standing, placing the subject at the center of its calls for criminal law reform. Regardless of which side you may be on, however, asset forfeiture is the law as of right now.

Civil asset forfeiture is a powerful right of law enforcement indeed. Since the Prohibition Era of the 1920s and 1930s, the US has made such allowances for law enforcement's rights in property seizure. Whether you agree or not, though, these are the basics and the debate surrounding civil forfeiture today.

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