How the Government Can Steal Your Stuff: 6 Questions About Civil Asset Forfeiture Answered
Civil asset forfeiture laws let authorities, such as federal marshals or local sheriffs, seize property – cash, a house, a car, a cellphone – that they suspect is involved in criminal activity. Seizures run the gamut from 12 cans of peas to multi-million-dollar yachts.
The federal government has confiscated assets worth a total of about US$28 billion this way over the past decade.
In contrast to criminal forfeiture, which requires that the property owner be convicted of a crime beforehand, the civil variety doesn’t even require that the suspect be charged with breaking the law.
Three Justice Department agencies – the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) – do most of this confiscating. Most states also permit state and local police to take personal property from people who haven’t been charged with a crime.