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How Police Departments Use Civil Forfeiture to Collect Billions

December 19, 2017


Recently, a lucky cannabis business owner in California was given back his assets after a his San Diego medical marijuana business was raided by a narcotics joint task force that ended in a sizable seizure of assets. This is rarely the case for victims of asset seizure, and while many people are aware of criminal asset forfeiture, few are nearly as familiar with civil asset forfeiture. 


Asset forfeiture is supposed to stop and deter criminal organizations, drug dealers, and terrorists by taking away their cash and assets used to facilitate these illicit activities. While asset forfeiture sounds great in theory, it really seems to be a mixed bag when you dig a little deeper. 


Criminal Forfeiture 101


According to the FBI, "Criminal forfeiture is brought as part of a criminal prosecution of a defendant. It is an in personam (against the person) action and requires that the government indict the property used or derived from the crime along with the defendant. In criminal forfeiture, an individual has the right to contest the seizure through trial proceedings."


An example of this is when Joseph Graziano, Jr. was sentenced in federal court to 90 months’ imprisonment on his convictions of bank embezzlement, bank fraud, mail fraud, tax fraud, conspiracy to commit counterfeiting and aggravated identity theft.


Because all of his crimes led to ill-gotten gains, the FBI's criminal forfeiture program "identified $4 million worth of assets, including cash, jewelry, luxury cars, and other properties, to be returned to the victims as restitution."


So far, this whole forfeiture thing seems fair, right?


Civil Forfeiture 101


Where as a conviction is required for criminal forfeiture, that is not the case with civil forfeiture. "Civil forfeiture allows police to seize — and then keep or sell — any property they allege is involved in a crime. Owners need not ever be arrested or convicted of a crime for their cash, cars, or even real estate to be taken away permanently by the government," according to the ACLU


A non-drug-related instance of this was when a federal jury in New York found an office building worth at least $500 million as well as other properties and bank accounts forfeitable to the United States as proceeds of violations of the Iran sanctions. This decision was the largest civil forfeiture jury verdict and the largest terrorism-related civil forfeiture in U.S. history.


Without the prerequisite of a conviction, civil forfeiture programs can be abused by law enforcement, as seen in the video below. 





While forfeiture was initially pitched as a way to take down large-scale criminal enterprises by taking their precious resources, today, many seizures are motivated by profits rather than crime-fighting thanks to flawed federal and state laws. Despite a lack of coverage in the main stream media, the concept of civil forfeiture is one that cannabis industry participants should be very aware of.


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