What is Forfeiture?

    Simply stated, forfeiture is the legal process by which the ownership of property -- houses, cars, airplanes, cash, bank accounts, etc. -- is non-consensually transferred from its owner to the government. The rationale for the transfer is that the property -- not the owner -- has done something wrong. Once the property is guilty of a crime, then the government is authorized to forfeit it.

    The conceptual underpinnings of civil forfeiture can be traced back to ancient Roman and medieval English law, both of which made objects used to violate the law subject to forfeiture to the sovereign. See United States v. 785 St. Nicholas Ave., 983 F.2d 396, 401-02 (2d Cir. 1992). United States laws providing for official seizure of property used in criminal activity perpetuate the legal fiction that "property used in violation of law was itself the wrongdoer that must be held to account for the harms it had caused." United States v. 92 Buena Vista Avenue, 113 S. Ct. 1126, 1135 (1993). Because the property, or res, is considered the wrongdoer, it is regarded as the actual party to in rem forfeiture proceedings. Id.

    Civil forfeiture has recently gained new life as an instrument of federal law enforcement, particularly as a weapon in the "war on drugs". As part of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, Congress strengthened civil forfeiture as a means of confiscating illegal substances and the means by which they are manufactured and distributed. In 1978 Congress amended the Act to authorize the seizure and forfeiture of the proceeds of illegal drug transactions as well. 

    Now "one of the most potent weapons in the judicial armamentarium", see United States v. 384-390 West Broadway, 964 F.2d 1244, 1248 (1st Cir. 1992), civil forfeiture has become a favored method for imposing significant economic sanctions against narcotics traffickers. However, the ease with which the government can seize property and the potential hardships caused to innocent owners who seek to recover their property once the government has seized it have elicited concern from courts and commentators alike

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