What is Forfeiture?
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.
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