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Understanding Forfeiture of Property in Federal Criminal Cases

Forfeiture of Property in Federal Criminal Cases

Forfeiture — also known as seizure of assets — is a powerful tool employed by federal law enforcement to divest from criminals the financial gains from their wrongdoings. Forfeiture allows the government to permanently seize property demonstrably linked to criminal activity. This serves a dual purpose. By taking away the proceeds of crime, authorities aim to weaken criminal enterprises and deter future offenses. In addition, forfeited assets can be used to compensate victims, fund law enforcement initiatives or be directed towards social programs. 

Forfeiture proceedings can be civil or criminal in nature. Criminal forfeiture occurs after convictions of certain offenses. Under the applicable statute, 18 U.S.C. § 982, a federal court imposing sentence on a person convicted of certain offenses can order that person to forfeit any property involved in that offense or any property traceable to that property. For certain other offenses, the court can order forfeiture or any proceeds the person obtained, directly or indirectly, as the result of the criminal activity.

In addition, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Prevention Control Act (21 U.S.C. § 853) enables the forfeiture of property linked to drug trafficking and other illegal drug activity.

Although forfeiture is principally used with respect to drug-related crime, assets can be seized on account of many other types of crime, such as:

  • Racketeering (RICO violations)
  • Money laundering 
  • Banking crimes
  • Mail or wire fraud 
  • Copyright infringement 
  • Counterfeiting 
  • Embezzlement 
  • Environmental crimes
  • Federal program fraud 
  • Identity theft

Even if a criminal case is dismissed, the government can pursue forfeiture of property in a civil proceeding. The burden of proof in civil forfeiture cases is lower than in criminal trials. Instead of having to prove the defendant guilty of a crime, the government only needs to demonstrate a preponderance of the evidence the property’s connection to criminal activity, either as instrumentality or as proceeds. The federal agencies principally engaged in civil forfeitures are the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

If you are facing forfeiture of your money, car, house or other property, you may be able to raise certain defenses. One is the “innocent owner” defense, which applies to individuals who can prove they had no knowledge or reason to suspect the property in their hands was linked to criminal activity. For instance, you may have purchased a home or a car without any knowledge that the seller had acquired it with money derived from drug trafficking. 

The dedicated Philadelphia federal criminal lawyers at the Law Offices of David Jay Glassman have decades of experience defending clients against federal charges. For a consultation and evaluation of your case, call 215-563-7100 or contact us online.