How Does the Government Use Civil Forfeiture?

Civil forfeiture is portrayed by its critics as a heavy-handed tool that state and local police departments use to take small amounts of money from motorists and others without due process of law.  This view has produced, in its latest incarnation, something called the FAIR Act, H.R. 1525, a bill to hobble the government’s ability to use civil forfeiture by raising its burden of proof and making other signifcant changes.

Whatever one thinks of the use of civil forfeiture in that context, it is important to understand that the same civil forfeiture law is the tool that the government uses to seize the yachts and airplanes owned by Russian oligarchs as well as the assets of designated terrorists, of kleptocrats who launder their money in the United States, of international money launderers who convert their money to cryptocurrency, of fraudsters who steal millions of dollars in investment fraud schemes and theft from the PPP and covid relief programs, and of those involved in evading international sanctions against North Korea and Iran.

These are the cases that would be most profoundly affected by ill-conceived and overbroad legislation such as the FAIR Act.  Yet these are the cases that everyone seems to agree the government should be pursuing, and pursuing vigorously.

Each year, to counter the misperception of how the government actually uses civil forfeiture, I compile a list of civil forfeiture cases that have nothing to do with the seizure of currency by the state and local police, but would be more difficult if not impossible to prove if the so-called “reforms” of civil forfeiture were enacted.  The current list — of cases resulting in reported judicial decisions between 2013 and July 2023 — is attached here.

Civil Forfeiture Examples: 2013 – 2023