Civil Asset Forfeiture: Lining Pockets and Ruining Lives

David O’Connell
David O’Connell is a J.D. candidate at University of Missouri School of Law, 2019. He thanks Professor Dennis Crouch for his insight, guidance, and support during the writing of this article, as well as the Missouri Law Review for its help during the editing process.


In 2014, the federal government seized $4.5 billion worth assets though civil asset forfeiture.1 This amount equals about 116,589 four-year college degrees, 2,552 miles of new roads, thirteen new hospitals, or roughly four Big Macs for every American.2 Whether the money is used to fund law enforcement or other government agencies, the authorities have a strong incentive to seize the assets of private citizens.

Civil asset forfeiture is the legal means the government employs to seize property that it suspects is associated with criminal activity. As its name suggests, civil asset forfeiture is a civil action.3 Law enforcement is not re­quired to make an arrest before it can seize property.4 Approximately 56% of seizures are from property valued over $1,000.5

In March 2017, Justice Clarence Thomas stated that a due process challenge to civil asset forfeiture would raise an “interesting question,” one which the Supreme Court is interested in answering.6 The majority of Americans op­pose civil asset forfeiture as it is applied today.7

Civil asset forfeiture originated in western society as a function of customs law, but since the implementation of the modern war on drugs, its prevalence has escalated.8 A regime designed to incentivize the seizure of property for the state’s own financial gain has led to grotesque abuses of power by law enforcement agencies.9

Section I of this article explains the history of civil asset forfeiture law, the policy justifications for its use, and how to reform its practice in the United States. Section II uses the laws of Missouri as an especially strict sample of how the civil asset forfeiture can work. Section III explains recent develop­ments of civil asset forfeiture law at the federal and state level. The article concludes with a critique of the overall civil system and recommends reforms.

  1. Legal background
  2. History of civil asset forfeiture

Civil asset forfeiture, like most western jurisprudence, has Judeo-Christian roots.10 In this tradition asset forfeiture has been based on the theory that rights to property, usually livestock, had been compromised based upon involve­ment in a culpable action.11 at 45th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW Britain expanded asset forfeiture into customs law by passing the Navigation Act of 1651, authorizing the seizure of foreign ships upon entry into any port controlled by the British Empire.12 This allowed the Britain to punish foreign citizens for maritime violations by seizing assets when it would have otherwise been impractical to obtain jurisdiction over the lawbreaker.13 In the early colonial era, the British Crown issued writs of assistance, which permitted its agents to seize whatever they deemed contraband.14 The Piracy Acts of 1819 in the U.S. permitted the seizure of maritime property upon a finding of probable cause that the ship was involved in piracy.15 The Supreme Court upheld the act and established that asset forfeiture proceedings can proceed in rem and are unrelated to the outcome of criminal proceedings.16

Historically, civil asset forfeiture was rare except for seizure of Confederate property after the civil war, during the prohibition era, and now with the war on drugs.17 When the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 was passed, civil asset forfeiture was expanded to include illicit drugs and the means of producing and using those drugs.18 The Act was later amended to allow the forfeiture of the proceeds from drug sales.19 However, the law’s high burden of proof meant that it was rarely used.20 Congress would go on to pass the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, which introduced Federal Equitable Sharing21 and allowed law enforcement agen­cies to keep seized assets.22 Under this statute, the burden of proof was on the party whose assets were seized to show that their property was not related to criminal activity.23 In 2000, Congress passed the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act (CAFRA).24 Under CAFRA, in civil asset forfeiture proceed­ings the government must establish “by a preponderance of the evidence that property is subject to forfeiture.”25 Though they often vary, each state has its own forfeiture process modeled after CAFRA.26

  1. Constitutional considerations

Civil asset forfeiture involves the taking of private property. Therefore, it must be evaluated under a procedural due process analysis. The central ques­tion in assessing its constitutional viability is determining what procedures would be fair to the property holder targeted by the government.27 Courts answer this question by applying the Mathews v. Eldridge test,28 which bal­ances three-factors to evaluate the adequacy of procedure:29 (1) the private interests at stake; (2) the risk of error in the procedure; and (3) the govern­ment interests at stake.30

When applying Mathews to civil asset forfeiture, the Supreme Court has made a distinction between personal and real property.31 For personal prop­erty, the Court has placed few Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause protections32 and has consistently held that probable cause is all that is necessary to temporarily seize it under the Fourth Amendment.33 In the civil forfeiture context, the seizure proceeding is in rem and, therefore, the notice to property holders facing civil asset forfeiture is minimal.34 Further, the government is permitted to seize the personal property and retain it until the outcome of a proceeding.35 In all other contexts, personal property is subject to the normal constitutional protections.36 By contrast, when the government attempts to seize real property, the Fifth Amendment Due Process provision requires the heightened protections of notice and a reasonable opportunity to be heard.37

  1. Jurisdiction

Civil asset forfeiture jurisdiction can be either in rem38 or in personam.39 Civil in personam actions determine the civil liability and awards damages.40 In personam jurisdiction requires that the court obtain personal jurisdiction over a defendant,41 which requires minimum contacts42 or actual presence within the jurisdiction.43 In contrast “[a] judgment in rem affects the interests of all persons in designated property” and has nothing to do with personal liability.44 In an in rem proceeding, the court asserts jurisdiction over property suspected of criminal involvement and takes actual or constructive posses­sion of that property.45 In rem jurisdiction only requires that the property be physically located within the court’s jurisdiction.46

Because it’s easier to obtain jurisdiction over property than persons, law enforcement prefers to obtain in rem jurisdiction.47 In personam jurisdiction is rarely asserted in federal or state asset forfeiture proceedings.48

  1. Theories of forfeiture

There are four modern theories of asset forfeiture: contraband, proceeds, facilitation, and enterprise forfeitures.49 Contraband forfeiture consists of ille­gal narcotics, banned weapons, and counterfeiting tools.50 Proceeds forfeiture consists of property that is lawful to possess but is derived from criminal activity—almost always money.51 Facilitation forfeiture involves property that is lawful to possess but that makes the commission of a crime easier.52 Enterprise forfeiture involves the government seizing business entities that are substantially related to criminal activity.53

Under the contraband theory there is contraband per se, which is property that serves no lawful purpose and cannot be legally owned and there is de­rivative contraband, which is property that may have a lawful purpose but is used to facilitate a crime.54 The contraband theory is predicated on the idea that one cannot have a property right in contraband because it cannot be legally possessed.55 Although there are no due process considerations involved in seizing contraband per se, because no property rights can exist in contraband,56 when property subject to forfeiture is seized because it aids in the crime (the derivative contraband theory), government seizure is subject to procedural restrictions under the U.S. Constitution.57

Under the proceeds theory, the government can seize funds that are “traceable to or used or intended to be used in illegal drug activities.”58 This includes “interest, dividends, income, or property derived from the original transaction.”59 That is, the government can seize money if there is probable cause to believe that the money is derived from or is intended to be used in a drug transaction.60

The facilitation forfeiture theory can be divided into two sub-categories, instrumentality forfeitures and facilitation forfeitures.61 Instrumentality forfeitures are limited to property that is directly related to the offense and actually used in the commission of the offense.62 The facilitation theory of forfeiture applies when certain property makes the commission of a crime “less difficult.”63 This means any property that is “used or intended to be used in any manner or part to commit or facilitate the commission of a violation” is forfeitable.64

The final and most rarely used theory of civil asset forfeiture is the enterprise theory.65 Seizures under this theory target interests in business organiza­tions that may have been used in criminal activity.66 The typical target of an enterprise forfeiture is a business organization used in money laundering.67

  1. Federal civil asset forfeiture statutes

In 2014, the federal government collected $4.5 billion worth of forfeited assets.68 There are numerous federal asset forfeiture statutes that allow civil asset forfeiture for a variety of crimes.69 Some examples include when one fraudulently obtains assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP);70 facilitates animal fighting; transports an unlawful alien into the United States;71 fails to properly file export information;72 violates antitrust laws;73 transports illegal oil;74 possesses illegal gambling devices,75 commits an archeological violation;76 violates maritime fishing laws;77 en­gages in criminal copyright infringement;78 uses objects for counterfeiting currency;79 smuggles;80 possesses contraband explosives;81 possesses unlawful firearms;82 launders money that is used, obtained, or derived from criminal transactions;83 possesses, creates, or distributes child pornography;84 and when one possesses illegal controlled substances, and property derived from controlled substances.85

The standard for the seizure of personal property in asset forfeiture is “probable cause.”86 The Supreme Court said “[p]robable cause exists when the facts and circumstances within their (the officers’) knowledge and of which they had reasonably trustworthy information (are) sufficient in themselves to warrant a man of reasonable caution” to believe that a crime has occurred. 87 Probable cause is more than bare suspicion.88 Civil asset forfeiture comprises a significant portion of the remedial and punitive aspects of our civil and criminal justice system.

  1. Federal civil forfeiture procedure

Federal civil asset forfeiture consists of equitable sharing,89 administrative forfeiture, and judicial forfeiture.90

Equitable sharing is the legal means by which state governments may use federal asset forfeiture law.91 Equitable sharing occurs when there is either a cooperative investigation by state and federal authorities into a crime, or when a state government requests that a federal agency seize property through a state mechanism.92 When there is a joint investigation, federal law provides that a state or local law enforcement agency shall retain “a value that bears a reasonable relationship to the degree of direct participation” in the law enforcement activities.93 However, even when a state government engages in 100 percent of the law enforcement activities, the federal government can still obtain 20 percent of the proceeds if the state government requests that the federal government adopt the asset forfeiture action.94

Administrative and judicial forfeiture simply refer to the procedure by which the government seizes property.95 Federal law permits the administrative for­feiture of improperly imported property and any personal property that can be forfeited under a contraband, proceeds, facilitation, or enterprise theory that does not exceed $500,000 in value.96 Notice must be given to anyone who may reasonably have an interest in the seized property, and interested persons must be given an opportunity to dispute the forfeiture.97 If a claim is not filed, the property is forfeited.98 If a claim is filed on time the process converts into a judicial proceeding.99

Judicial proceedings are mandatory in real property actions,100 actions involving personal property valued at over $500,000,101 and contested admin­istrative forfeitures.102 There is a statute mandating the time frame for filing a judicial action, unless the action is a contested administrative forfeiture.103 The pleadings standards for a civil forfeiture action are the same for federal civil proceedings,104 but the Supplemental Rules for Admiralty or Maritime Claims and Asset Forfeiture actions also apply.105 The Supplemental Rules provide the procedure for giving notice in civil forfeiture actions.106 Notice must be given to everyone with a foreseeable interest in the property.107 Any party asserting a claim on the property in controversy has thirty days after service of notice to file their claim, and twenty days after the govern­ment filed their complaint to answer.108 The government must establish that the property is subject to forfeiture by a preponderance of the evidence.109 Someone claiming an interest in the property in controversy may assert an innocent owner affirmative defense by the preponderance of the evidence.110 An innocent owner must have almost no culpability in the underlying crime.111

In either an administrative or judicial civil forfeiture action a claimant may file for remission or mitigation.112 Remission or mitigation are administra­tive remedies that allow seizing parties to return property to the owner after the owner files a remission or mitigation petition.113 These remedies exist to provide an equitable alternative to expensive judicial proceedings.114 In an administrative proceeding, petitions for remission or mitigation should be filed with the seizing agency.115 In judicial proceedings, they are filed with the U.S. Attorney.116 Granting remission or mitigation is at the discretion of the relevant authority.117

  1. State asset forfeiture overview

While some states have adopted asset forfeiture proceedings that protect property rights, most have not.118 In fact, forty states place the burden on the citizen to prove that their property was not involved in a crime.119 The other jurisdictions place the burden of proving the property is subject to forfeiture on the state either by a preponderance of the evidence or by clear and convincing evidence.120 Most states give law enforcement a substantial share of the proceeds generated from asset forfeiture.121 Revenue generated from asset forfeiture has steadily increased from 2002 to 2015.122 Thus, in a majority of states asset forfeiture is easy for authorities and there is ample incentive to seize property.

  1. Missouri civil asset forfeiture

Missouri’s civil asset forfeiture law is stricter than federal asset forfeiture law,123 primarily because it does not employ administrative asset forfeiture proceedings.124 In Missouri, “all property of any kind” is subject to forfeiture if it is “used or intended to be used” in a criminal venture.125 However, a party subject to forfeiture must have been convicted of a felony.126 And, after the state files a petition to seize the property, notice must be given to person(s) who may have an interest in the property.127

Any “net proceeds” taken through Missouri’s civil asset forfeiture program go to Missouri schools,128 though the Missouri government has used federal equitable sharing to avoid funding education.129 Moreover, although Missouri law enforcement can obtain the proceeds of assets seized by requesting the federal government engage in equitable sharing, Missouri law is substantially more restrictive in regards to equitable sharing than other jurisdictions.130 Transfer to a federal agency requires the prosecutor and the judge to agree that the transfer is proper and it reasonably appears that the alleged crime involves more than one state, involves a violation of federal law, and the vio­lation is a felony under Missouri law.131 Missouri also has one of the strictest civil asset forfeiture timelines of any state.132

  1. Recent developments
  2. Federal developments

CAFRA, enacted in 2000, is the most recent civil asset forfeiture statute passed by Congress.133 Other civil asset forfeiture bills have been proposed since, but none have been enacted.134 In 2015, the Obama administration’s justice department discontinued federal equitable sharing because of a lack of funding.135 The following year, equitable sharing was reintroduced.136 More recently, the House of Representatives has voted to end adoptive forfeiture altogether.137 This bill has been introduced in the Senate in the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, but as of this writing there has not been a vote.138

In March 2017, the Supreme Court denied certiorari to a petition bringing a due process challenge to civil asset forfeiture procedures.139 The reason for the denial was that the issue had not been properly preserved earlier in the case.140 Justice Thomas issued a statement accompanying the denial of certiorari to the effect that he was skeptical that civil asset forfeiture could withstand due process scrutiny.141 He stated that historical jurisprudence on civil asset forfeiture was significantly narrower than it is today and that there is a lack of clarity on whether asset forfeiture has always been civil as op­posed to criminal.142 Perhaps in response to this memo, the ACLU has filed a petition in an Arizona District Court challenging the constitutionality of its civil asset forfeiture laws.143

  1. State law developments

Due to a public outcry, some states have instituted civil asset forfeiture reform at the state level.144 For example, New Mexico passed legislation that requires a criminal conviction prior to forfeiture.145 Funds derived from asset forfeiture now go to a general fund and restrictions have been placed on law enforcement agencies seeking to use adoptive forfeiture.146 Nebraska has adopted substantially similar legislation, but law enforcement agencies still get fifty percent of the proceeds from forfeited property.147 Maryland has raised the evidentiary standard from a preponderance of the evidence to clear and convincing evidence.148 Florida has increased the burden of proof to beyond a reasonable doubt.149 The current trend in civil asset forfeiture law is to restrict the government’s ability to seize property.150

  1. Examples of asset forfeitures application

There have been numerous cases of police abusing their power in civil asset forfeiture. For instance, a Tennessee man was pulled over during a routine traffic stop while carrying $22,000 in cash.151 The man informed the police officer that he was carrying the cash and gave the officer permission to search his car.152 Although he committed no crime and cooperated with the police, the officer seized the money because the owner “couldn’t prove [the money] was legitimate,” despite his claim that the money was going to be used to buy a car.153 The police officer dismissively advised the owner not to carry so much cash (a lawful activity) because it is “safer.”154 It took four years for the owner to get his money back.155

In another case, law enforcement seized a property owners’ house because their son had been charged with dealing just $40 worth of heroin.156 This oc­curred despite the fact that the owners themselves had committed no crime.157 In Teneha, Texas, law enforcement would routinely seize out-of-town drivers’ property and coerce them into signing over their property rights.158 In another case, law enforcement seized a plant worker’s car, jailed him overnight, and “forced him to sign away his property, and then released him on the side of the road without a phone or money.”159

Civil asset forfeiture, like most abuses of power, tends to disproportionately affect minorities and poor people.160 In Los Angeles, a Latino businessman drove his taco truck home with $10,000 dollars in cash in it.161 When he was stopped by law enforcement he disclosed that he was carrying the cash.162 The police officer seized the money although there was no evidence of criminal activity.163 The businessman sought to challenge the seizure in state court, but he learned that the forfeiture action against his property had been transferred to a federal jurisdiction.164 His attorney advised him not to seek to vindicate his rights against the federal government because asset forfeiture cases were more costly when the federal government was involved and challenging them often led to immigration investigations of relatives.165 The businessman was never charged with a crime.166 In another case, Joseph Rivers, a black man, was on a train to Los Angeles while carrying $16,000 in cash.167 Rivers and his family had saved enough money for him to pursue his dream in Holly­wood.168 A DEA agent stopped him on the train, searched his bag, and seized the money.169 Rivers was the only black person in that part of the train and the only person the DEA searched.170 Even though Rivers informed the DEA agent of his reasons for carrying the cash and was able to get family members on the phone to corroborate his story, the DEA agent took his money.171 Riv­ers was stuck on a train to Los Angeles with no means to support himself or get back home.172 He was never detained or charged with any crime.173 These stories and others like them should give lawmakers and judges pause.

III. Discussion

  1. Forfeiture law’s application

Civil asset forfeiture has often been criticized because it allows the govern­ment to take property from private citizens who may have not committed a crime.174 In 2015, law enforcement took more property from private citizens than criminal thieves did.175 There is widespread dissatisfaction with the state of civil asset forfeiture law as it exists today.

It is often the case that there is no practicable remedy for this type of gov­ernment infringement on property rights, either because the aggrieved party cannot afford to vindicate his or her rights or because it is not economically efficient to do so.176 The introduction of remission and mitigation in federal proceedings were intended to alleviate some of the harshness of civil asset forfeiture.177 However, this has not been successful in protecting property because remission and mitigation decisions are made at the discretion of law enforcement agencies.178 Since law enforcement often gets to keep what it seizes and has a strong incentive to deny remission or mitigation, this reform ultimately does nothing to give the accused the power to protect their property rights, especially when the wealth they might have used to hire counsel has already been seized.179 These perverse financial incentives for government agencies to seize property180 continue to provide a selfish motive to abuse power and improperly seize property.181

Supreme Court precedent is mechanically applied to judicial review of forfeiture proceedings,182 even when impropriety is obvious to all but the Court.183 Civil asset forfeiture law should depart from its mechanical and formalistic application and keep in step with the modern trend departing from formalism in favor of equity and justice. Judge Cardozo famously wrote in the 1920s that “[t]he law has outgrown its primitive stage of formalism when the precise word was the sovereign talisman, and every slip was fatal. It takes a broader view today[,]”184 but almost a century later civil asset forfeiture jurisprudence has yet to adapt to this old and sensible legal standard.

Although Missouri lawmakers have created relatively stringent restrictions on civil asset forfeiture,185 it is still used arbitrarily, capriciously, and often with impermissibly discriminatory intent.186 The Supreme Court has yet to hold civil asset forfeiture statutes unconstitutional,187 despite the fact that it has a disparate impact on minorities188 and deprives innocent individuals of property with no practicable remedy.189 The Supreme Court should at long last hold that civil asset forfeiture statutes are unconstitutional.190 State law­makers should comply with equity, justice, and constitutional principles by creating asset forfeiture procedures that do not have prohibitively high costs.

  1. Constitutional considerations

Civil asset forfeiture law began in the United States as a form of maritime customs law.191 A major reason that asset forfeiture was employed and upheld was that jurisdiction was difficult to obtain over ship owners who commit­ted crimes at sea.192 The only practicable method of deterrence was to seize the property used in the crime.193 One can imagine how difficult it was for the post-colonial U.S. government to obtain jurisdiction over a Spaniard, for instance. In contrast, today property is often seized from people who are easy to locate or present during the seizure.194 The policy considerations that existed shortly after the revolutionary war certainly justified the asset forfeiture procedure, but those who implemented it then could never have anticipated what we see today.195

While the Supreme Court has held that the current procedures for the for­feiture of personal property are constitutional, in Leonard v. Texas Justice Thomas has indicated a new desire to hear due process challenges.196 With the passage of time the state’s interest in asset forfeiture has changed, as have the tests courts have used to measure its appropriateness.197 Looking at the subject more broadly, all legal tests, even the so called “objective tests,” such as the reasonable person test, are inherently subjective at some level.198 Our justice system has dealt with this sort of subjectivity, which can imply a certain amount of arbitrariness, and has been able to adapt to account for it. We should not indulge myths about objectivity in the law, especially in an area as predatory and rife with abuse as this one. As public opinion changes, the Court has indicated that certain qualities of the law will and must change with it.199 Change must occur in this area—and soon.

Since asset forfeiture involves the taking of property, due process is the main consideration in evaluating its constitutionality.200 The central question in a due process claim is “what process is due?”201 The answer to this question is very fact-specific and involves balancing government and private interests.202

The Supreme Court set out the test for procedural due process in Mathews v Eldridge.203 As noted, under this test the court weighs (1) the private inter­ests at stake, (2) the risk of error in the procedure, and (3) the government interests at stake.204 This is necessarily a flexible test and should be applied in a manner that is consistent with a contemporary view of the cultural and legal landscape of our nation. In asset forfeiture, the Supreme Court has made a distinction between personal and real property and has made little of personal property rights in comparison to real property rights.205 However, this is not always a cogent distinction.

The first prong of the Mathews test considers the private interests at stake206 —an individual’s right to possess and enjoy their property free from govern­ment intrusion. The private interests at stake from forfeiture when personal property is involved are manifest. For example, if an Uber driver had his or her vehicle seized, the hardship might be even greater than losing a house. An Uber driver would simultaneously lose his or her livelihood and, for that reason, might be unable to pay for his or her housing. Also, if someone were in the process of purchasing real property with cash, and that cash was seized by law enforcement, the risk of undue hardship in the forfeiture proceeding would be the same regardless of which legal category the property fell into. In some situations personal property seizures can create greater hardship than real property seizures. Private property interests should be considered at least as valuable as real property interests.

The second prong of the Mathews test is the risk of erroneous deprivation of property.207 There are numerous reasons why the risk of error in civil asset forfeiture is extremely high. Forfeitures are often the result of traffic stops or other innocuous activity.208 Even when an innocent owner has property that has no connection to a crime, the police can seize it based on probable cause,209 which is an easy standard to meet.210 If the innocent owner has the money and economic incentive to contest the proceeding, he or she probably will be able to recover the property after some time. If the owner lacks the ability or economic incentive to go to court, then law enforcement will be able to obtain a default judgment and lawfully seize the property.211 Error is even more likely in states that require deprived property owners to prove their property was not involved in criminal activity, when states do not require criminal convictions, or where lower burdens of proof exist.212

The next step in the risk of error analysis is evaluating the availability of alternative procedures.213 There are many alternative procedures available. For example, replacing the probable cause requirement for continued govern­ment possession of property, mandating sua sponte judicial review of any seizure, requiring a warrant, creating heightened burdens of proof, requiring the appointment of counsel, or introducing low-cost administrative hearings are just a few options that would mitigate the risk of error.

The third prong of the Mathews test is the government interest at stake.214 The government interests behind current asset forfeiture laws are deterring and punishing crime as well as obtaining funding.215 Government interests in deterring crime can be substantially through the application of the criminal law. As for obtaining funding for the government, the traditional method of raising taxes, however politically unpopular, is always available.

Those who seek to justify asset forfeiture, as it is applied today, must resort to archaic and inapposite precedent.216 Clearly, there are alternative procedures available that both satisfy the government interests and respect property rights. The Supreme Court should reconsider the constitutionality of forfeiture law under the Mathews test.217

  1. Alternatives

If the Court declines to hear a case that affords them the opportunity to add due process restrictions, state and federal legislators should craft comprehensive solutions to curb asset forfeiture abuse. Obvious solutions include increasing the burden of proof to clear and convincing evidence and requiring a judicial determination before non-contraband property is seized. In addition, ending adoptive forfeiture, either through state or federal law, will go a long way toward limiting financial incentives for law enforcement to seize property. However, none of these solutions will address the prohibi­tive court costs that people face in asset forfeiture proceedings because a judicial hearing would still be required. Even if due process restrictions were increased, these costs remain prohibitively high.218 Consequently, in addition to heightened due process requirements, civil asset forfeiture reform will require some novel measures.

South Africa has addressed a similar problem—to the general satisfaction of its citizens—by creating a quasi-judicial process for aggrieved employees.219 In South Africa, employment disputes are common and when they arise most employees are not able to afford to litigate their disputes in court.220 The South African government created the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) to allow employees to overcome the prohibitive costs required to adjudicate their rights.221 This has drastically increased access to justice. If the parties cannot agree on a settlement the employee can file a request with the CCMA and the parties will work to resolve their dispute in mediation.222 If the parties cannot agree in mediation the proceeding turns into an arbitration that is appealable.223 The CCMA has a thirty-day deadline by which to resolve all disputes.224

The CCMA provides a framework for reform in asset forfeiture adminis­trative proceedings. Mediation or arbitration satisfies due process require­ments because it gives a claimant a meaningful opportunity to be heard in a meaningful manner, and it is not prohibitively costly. In addition, new administrative processes coupled with increased due process restrictions could adequately balance the government’s interest in deterring crime with the personal property rights of citizens. Furthermore, by creating a process that most people can access, legislators would be decreasing the risk of the erroneous deprivation of property rights, legislators should consider adopting administrative procedures similar to South Africa’s CCMA.


It is clear that civil asset forfeiture law as it is applied today does not serve justice. Any law that does not serve justice has no reason to exist. This is why civil asset forfeiture is probably one of the most universally reviled aspects of the current U.S. legal system.225 Despite the public outcry, there has been a lack of political will to address this issue because the widespread abuses stemming from its use disparately impact disempowered sectors of the population.226 Nevertheless, legislators at both the federal and state levels have made some progress in attempting to limit the government’s ability to unfairly seize property.227 The government should fulfill its duty to protect its most vulnerable citizens with meaningful reforms. In order to properly balance the interests of the government and property holders, creative solu­tions need to be enacted.



  1. Dick M. Carpenter IIet al., Policingfor Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture 6 (2d ed. 2015), available at
  2. See Meg Wagner, Here’s What $15 Billion Can Buy, Other Than President Trump’s Border Wall, NYDaily News (Jan. 26, 2017, 2:12 PM), politics/15-billion-buys-trump-border-wall-article-1.2956462.
  3. See Adam Crepelle, Probable Cause to Plunder: Civil Asset Forfeiture and the Problems It Creates, 7 Wake Forest J.L. & Pol’y 315 (2017).
  4. See id.
  5. Monique Judge, Civil Asset Forfeiture Seems to Target Poor Black and Brown People. Why Is That?, The Root (Aug. 11, 2016, 4:56 PM), civil-asset-forfeiture-seems-to-target-poor-black-and-b-1797764673.
  6. Leonard v. Texas, 137 S. Ct. 847, 848, 850 (2017) (cert. denied but with additional state­ments from Thomas, J.).
  7. See Radley Balko, Jeff Sessions Supports States’ Rights. Except When He Doesn’t, Wash. Post (July 18, 2017),; Asset Forfeiture Abuse, ACLU, (last visited Oct. 16, 2017).
  8. Rachel L. Stuteville, Reverse Robin Hood: The Tale of How Texas Law Enforcement Has Used Civil Asset Forfeiture to Take from Property Owners and Pad the Pockets of Local Government-the Righteous Hunt for Reform Is On, 46 Tex. TechL. Rev. 1169, 1179 (2014).
  9. Crepelle, supra note 3, at 332.
  10. Id. at 317.
  11. Id. For example, if a bull would gore somebody, then it would be stoned and its meat left uneaten. Exodus 21:28. The idea was that the animal was in some way evil, and people should not have any part in its wickedness. See id.
  12. The Navigation Act, Scobell’s Acts of Parliament, pt. ii, p. 176 (1651), available at http:// Primary-Source-Document.pdf.
  13. Id.
  14. See Sarah Stillman, Taken, The New Yorker (Aug. 12, 2013), https://www.newyorker. com/magazine/2013/08/12/taken (these writs of assistance are part of the justification for why the text of the Fifth Amendment forbids unreasonable seizure of property. Id. ).
  15. The Palmyra, 25 U.S. 1 (1827).
  16. Id. at 15.
  17. Crepelle, supra note 3, at 324.
  18. Id.
  19. Id. at 325.
  20. Id. A violation and a lawful arrest, search, or seizure warrant was required in order to seize property. See Department of Justice Assets Forfeiture Fund Amendments Act of 1986, Pub. L. No. 99–570, § 1151-53, 100 Stat. 3207(b) (codified as amended at 18 U.S.C. § 981(b) (1986)).
  21. Federal Equitable Sharing occurs when state and federal agencies jointly seize assets in a civil proceeding, generally the federal government keeps a percentage of the proceeds. Dee R. Edgeworth See Asset Forfeiture Practice and Procedure inState and Federal Courts 65-67 (Dee R. Edgeworth ed., 3d ed. 2014) [hereinafter Asset Forfeiture Practice and Procedure].
  22. Crepelle, supra note 3, at 325.
  23. Id.
  24. Id. at 326.
  25. 18 U.S.C. § 982(c)(2) (2000). Notably, innocence is a complete defense in a civil asset forfeiture proceeding. Crepelle, supra note 3, at 326.
  26. Crepelle, supra note 3, at 325.
  27. Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471, 481 (1972).
  28. Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976).
  29. Id.
  30. Id. at 321.
  31. United States v. James Daniel Good Real Property, 510 U.S. 43, 55–56 (1993).
  32. See Asset Forfeiture Practice and Procedure, supra note 21, at 57; see also James Daniel Good Real Property, 510 U.S. at 62.
  33. Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616, 640 (1886); One 1958 Plymouth Sedan v. Pennsylvania, 380 U.S. 693, 702 (1965).
  34. James Daniel Good Real Property, 510 U.S. at 44, 55–56 (holding that an in rem notice requirement can be met by posting notice on real property). In in rem proceedings, it is entirely possible that the property owner will have no notice of the seizure or the action against their property. See Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U.S. 714 (1877).
  35. Republic National Bank of Miami v. United States, 506 U.S. 80, 84-86 (1992).
  36. See Asset Forfeiture Practice and Procedure, supra note 21, at 7-10; see also James Daniel Good Real Property, 510 U.S. at 62.
  37. James Daniel Good Real Property, 510 U.S. at 46.
  38. Republic National Bank of Miami, 506 U.S. at 84.
  39. Asset Forfeiture Practice and Procedure, supra note 21, at 8.
  40. Id.
  41. See Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U.S. 714 (1877).
  42. International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 316 (1945). The minimum contacts standard applies to businesses when a company’s presence is “continuous and systematic” and do not offend traditional notions of justice and fair play. Id. at 316-17.
  43. Burnham v. Superior Court of California, 495 U.S. 604, 618 (1990).
  44. Shaffer v. Heitner, 433 U.S. 186, 199 n.17 (1977) (quoting Hanson v. Denckla 357 U.S. 235, 246 n. 12 (1958)).
  45. Asset Forfeiture Practice and Procedure, supra note 21, at 7.
  46. Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616, 638 (1886).
  47. Asset Forfeiture Practice and Procedure, supra note 21, at 8-11.
  48. Id. (New York is the only state that engages in civil proceedings exclusively through in personam jurisdiction.).
  49. Id. at 11.
  50. Id.
  51. Id.
  52. Id.
  53. Asset Forfeiture Practice and Procedure, supra note 21, at 11.
    54. Id. at 12 (An example of derivative contraband would be a pipe that is used to smoke illegal drugs.).
  54. United States v. Jeffers, 342 U.S. 48, 52-53 (1951).
  55. Id.
  56. United States v Rodriguez-Aguirre, 264 F.3d 1195, 1213 (10th Cir. 2001); Asset Forfeiture Practice and Procedure, supra note 21, at 12.
  57. United States v. Premises Known as 3639-2nd St., N.E. Minneapolis, Minn., 869 F.2d 1093, 1097 (8th Cir. 1989).
  58. Asset Forfeiture Practice and Procedure, supra note 21, at 12 (citing United States v. One 1980 Rolls Royce, 905 F.2d 89, 91 (5th Cir. 1990)).
  59. Id. at 12.
  60. Id. at 13.
  61. Id. (citing United States v Bajakajian, 524 U.S. 321, 333 n.8 (1998)).
  62. Platt v. United States, 163 F.2d 165, 166-67 (10th Cir. 1947).
  63. Asset Forfeiture Practice and Procedure, supra note 21, at 14 (quoting 21 U.S.C. § 881(a)(7)).
  64. Id. at 16.
  65. Id.
  66. Id.
  67. Carpenter IIet al., supra note 1, at 6.
  68. U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Asset Forfeiture and Money LaunderingStatutes (2015), available at statutes2015.pdf.
  69. See 7 U.S.C. § 2024(b)(1), (e) (2014).
  70. See 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(1)(A), (b)(1) (2005).
  71. See 13 U.S.C. § 305(a) (2016).
  72. See 15 U.S.C. § 6 (1890).
  73. See 15 U.S.C. § 715f (1935).
  74. See 24 U.S.C. § 1177 (1951).
  75. See 17 U.S.C. § 470gg (1979).
  76. See 16 U.S.C. § 916f (1970); 16 U.S.C. § 957 (2015).
  77. See 17 U.S.C. § 506 (2008).
  78. See 18 U.S.C. § 492 (2002).
  79. See 18 U.S.C. § 545 (2006).
  80. See 18 U.S.C. § 844(c) (2004).
  81. See 18 U.S.C. § 924(d) (2006).
  82. See 18 U.S.C. § 981 (2016).
  83. See 18 U.S.C. § 2254 (2006).
  84. See 21 U.S.C. § 881 (2002).
  85. Florida v. White, 526 U.S. 559 (1999).
  86. Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160, 175-76 (1949).
  87. Id. at 176.
  88. Equitable sharing in asset forfeiture is the sharing of forfeited assets between government agencies. Asset Forfeiture Practice and Procedure, supra note 21, at 8 (citing 21 U.S.C. § 881(e)(1)(A), (e)(3) (2002); 18 U.S.C. § 981(e)(2) (2016); 19 U.S.C. § 1616a (1930)).
  89. Asset Forfeiture Practice and Procedure, supra note 21, at 65-74.
  90. Id.
  91. Id. at 65-66.
  92. 21 U.S.C. § 881(e)(3)(A) (2002).
  93. U.S. Dep’t of Treasury, Guide to Equitable Sharingfor ForeignCountries and Federal, State, and Local Law Enforcement Agencies 12 (2004); Asset Forfeiture Practice and Procedure, supra note 21, at 66 (citing State v. Gray, 21 S.W.3d 847, 851 (Mo. Ct. App. 2000)).
  94. Asset Forfeiture Practice and Procedure, supra note 21, at 65, 74.
  95. See, e.g.,18 U.S.C. § 983 (2016); Monetary instruments, as defined by 31 U.S.C. § 5312(a) (3), are subject to seizure regardless of their value; 19 U.S.C. § 1607 (2016).
  96. See 18 U.S.C. § 983 (2016); 19 U.S.C. § 1607 (2016); 19 U.S.C. § 1608 (1988).
  97. See 18 U.S.C. § 983 (2016); 19 U.S.C. § 1609 (1988).
  98. See 18 U.S.C. § 983(a)(3)(A) (2016); 19 U.S.C. § 1608 (1988).
  99. See 18 U.S.C. § 985(a) (2000)
  100. See 19 U.S.C. § 1607 (2016).
  101. Asset Forfeiture Practice and Procedure, supra note 21, at 74 (citing 19 U.S.C. §§ 1603-1604 (1988)).
  102. See id. There is a ninety-day deadline for filing a claim in contested administrative actions. 18 U.S.C. § 983(a)(3)(A) (2016). If the government does not meet this deadline they are required to return the property without prejudice its right to maintain a further forfeiture action. § 983(a)(1)(F).
  103. See United State v. Aguilar, 782 F.3d 1101, 1107 (9th Cir. 2015); see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009).
  104. See Fed. R. Civ. P. Supp. AMC G(1). In addition to the pleading standards set out in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, complaints for forfeiture actions must describe the property and state its location if it is tangible. See Fed. R. Civ. P. Supp. AMC G(2).
  105. See Fed. R. Civ. P. Supp. AMC G(4). Notice must be published in a newspaper “generally circulated” in the district where the action was filed, where the property was seized, or where the property is located. See Fed. R. Civ. P. Supp. AMC G(4)(a)(iv). The notice must either be published once a week for three weeks or only once if notice was placed on the government forfeiture site for at least 30 consecutive days. See Fed. R. Civ. P. Supp. AMC G(4)(a)(iii).
  106. See Asset Forfeiture Practice and Procedure, supra note 21, at 74 (citing Dusenbery v. United States, 534 U.S. 161, 170 (2002)).
  107. See 18 U.S.C. § 983(a)(4) (2016). A claim is a statement asserting one’s interest in property, an answer is a responsive pleading document used in all civil proceedings. See § 983(a)(4) (A); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 7(a)(2).
  108. See § 983(c)(1)-(2). If a facilitation theory of forfeiture is used then the government must also establish a “substantial connection between the property and the offense. See § 983(c) (3).
  109. See § 983(d)(1).
  110. See § 983(d). An innocent owner could not have known of the criminal conduct giving rise to the forfeiture or alternatively acted reasonably under the circumstances. See § 983(d) (2)(A)(i)-(ii). Acting reasonably requires notifying law enforcement of illegal activity and revoking permission to use property once illegal activity is discovered as long as it would not subject them to physical danger. See § 983(d)(2)(B)(i)-(ii). An innocent owner must either have a lawful interest in the property or have no reason to believe the property is involved in a crime. See § 983(d)(3).
  111. See 18 U.S.C. § 981(d) (2016).
  112. Asset Forfeiture Practice and Procedure, supra note 21, at 71-73.
  113. Id. at 71.
  114. Id. at 74 (citing 28 C.F.R.§ 9.3(a)).
  115. Id. at 76 (citing 28 C.F.R. § 9.4(a)).
  116. See 28 C.F.R. § 9.4(f)-(g) (2012). The agency is required to investigate the merits of the claim. § 9.4(f).
  117. Crepelle, supra note 3, at 330–31.
  118. Crepelle, supra note 3 at 330–31.
  119. Carpenter IIet al., supra note 1, at 20.
  120. Id. at 18.
  121. Id. at 15.
  122. See generally Mo. Ann. Stat. § 513.607 (West 1986).
  123. Id.
  124. Id.
  125. See Springfield v. Gee, 149 S.W.3d 609, 615 (Mo. Ct. App. 2004).
  126. See § 513.607.7
  127. Reorganized School Dist. No. 7 Lafayette County v. Douthit, 799 S.W.2d 591, 594 (Mo. 1990).
  128. See Nick Sibilla, Loophole Lets Missouri Cops Keep Milions in Forfeiture Funds (and Away from Schools), Institute for Justice (Mar. 27, 2017), loophole-lets-missouri-cops-keep-millions-forfeiture-funds/.
  129. State v. Gray, 21 S.W.3d 847, 851 (Mo. Ct. App. 2000) (holding that a small police depart­ment can engage in equitable sharing because of a lack of resources).
  130. See, e.g., Mo. Ann. Stat. § 513.647 (West 2017). See also State v. Sledd, 949 S.W.2d 643 (Mo. Ct. App. 1997).
  131. See Asset Forfeiture Practice and Procedure, supra note 21, at 79-82.
  132. Id. at 68.
  133. See, e.g., H.R. 5212, 113th Cong. (2d Sess. 2014); see also H.R. 5212 (113th): Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2014, govtrack, hr5212 (last updated Oct. 9, 2014).
  134. See Christopher Ingraham, The Justice Department Just Shut Down a Huge Asset Forfeiture Program, Wash. Post (Dec. 23, 2015), wp/2015/12/23/the-feds-just-shut-down-a-huge-program-that-lets-cops-take-your-stuff-and-keep-it/?utm_term=.601dab26a1d5.
  135. See id.
  136. See Ilya Somin, House Votes to Curb Asset Forfeiture¸ Wash. Post (Sep. 13, 2017), https://
  137. See S.126, 115th Cong. (2017), available at senate-bill/126/actions (may be cited as the “Repeal ID Act of 2017”).
  138. Leonard v. Texas, 137 S. Ct. 847 (2017) (cert. denied but with additional statements from Thomas, J.).

The petitioner focused on the preponderance of the evidence standard in its due process challenge to civil asset forfeiture. Id.

  1. Id.
  2. Id. at 849.
  3. Id.
  4. See Cox v. Voyles, et. al., ACLU, (last updated Aug. 21, 2017).
  5. See Jason Sneed, An Overview of Recent State-Level Forfeiture Reforms, The Heritage Foundation(Aug. 23, 2016) overview-recent-state-level-forfeiture-reforms.
  6. See id.
  7. See id.
  8. Id.
  9. Id.
  10. Id.
  11. See id.
  12. Phil Williams, Man Loses $22,000 In New ‘Policing For Profit’ Case, News Channel 5 (Jan. 17, 2016, 8:40 PM), man-loses-22000-in-new-policing-for-profit-case.
  13. Id.
  14. Id.
  15. Id.
  16. Id.
  17. Pamela Brown, Parents’ House Seized After Son’s Drug Bust, CNN (Sept. 8, 2014, 10:45 AM), html.
  18. Id.
  19. Leonard v. Texas, 137 S. Ct. 847, 848 (2017) (cert. denied but with additional statements from Thomas, J.).
  20. Id.
  21. See C.J. Ciaramella, Poor and Minority Neighborhoods Bear the Brunt of Asset Forfeiture in Las Vegas, Reason(Aug. 7, 2017, 2:45 PM) poor-and-minority-neighborhoods-bear-the.
  22. Read the Stories of Civil Asset Forfeiture Victims, ACLU(March 2016) https://www.aclunc. org/article/read-stories-civil-asset-forfeiture-victims.
  23. Id.
  24. Id.
  25. Id.
  26. Id.
  27. Id.
  28. See Joline Gutierrez Krueger, DEA to Traveler: Thanks, I’ ll Take That cash, AlbuquerqueJournal, (Mar. 6, 2015 12:05 AM), dea-agents-seize-16000-from-aspiring-music-video-producer.html.
  29. Id.
  30. Id.
  31. Id.
  32. Id.
  33. Id.
  34. Id.
  35. See Christopher Ingraham, The Feds Have Resumed A Controversial Program That Lets Cops Take Stuff and Keep It, Wash. Post (Mar. 28, 2016), https://www.washingtonpost. com/news/wonk/wp/2016/03/28/the-feds-have-resumed-a-controversial-program-that-lets-cops-take-stuff-and-keep-it/?utm_term=.adaa3c7ba213.
  36. See Crepelle, supra note 3, at 315.
  37. See C.J. Ciaramelia, Inside Mississippi’s Asset Forfeiture Extortion Racket, Reason(Jan. 5, 2017, 10:00 AM), It can cost $1,500 just to file with the court to contest an asset forfeiture. Id.
  38. See Crepelle, supra note 3, at 71; 18 U.S.C. § 981(d) (2000).
  39. See Crepelle, supra note 3, at 71.
  40. See J. Ciaramelia, Inside Mississippi’s Asset Forfeiture Extortion Racket, Reason, (Jan. 5, 2017)
  41. See Carpenter IIet al., supra note 1, at 6.
  42. See United States v. James Daniel Good Real Property, 510 U.S. 43, 55–56 (1993).
  43. See Bennis v. Michigan, 516 U.S. 442, 454-56 (1996).
  44. See Carpenter IIet al., supra note 1, at 6.
  45. Wood v. Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon, 118 N.E. 214 (N.Y. 1917).
  46. See Asset Forfeiture Practice and Procedure, supra note 21, at 79-82.
  47. See Robert Patrick, Ferguson Drops Charges Against Man After 5 Years; He Says They Cost Him His Job And Home, STLToday (Sept. 13, 2017), news/local/crime-and-courts/ferguson-drops-charges-against-man-after-years-he-says-they/article_45b6505b-9b5e-54ab-9075-4c4ae175b1b1.html. In this case police officers in Ferguson seized $2,000 from a man who intended to use that money for tuition for his child’s school. Id.
  48. See, e.g., Leonard v. Texas, 137 S. Ct. 847 (2017) (cert. denied but with additional state­ments from Thomas, J.).
  49. See Rebecca Vallas et al., Forfeiting the American Dream, Center for AmericanProgress (April 1, 2016, 6:00 AM), reports/2016/04/01/134495/forfeiting-the-american-dream/.
  50. See C.J. Ciaramelia, Inside Mississippi’s Asset Forfeiture Extortion Racket, Reason, (Jan. 5, 2017, 10:00 AM)
  51. Civil asset forfeiture is not facially unconstitutional, but rather that the application of civil asset forfeiture law unconstitutionally infringes on the private property rights of citizens.
  52. See The Palmyra, 25 U.S. 1, 10-11 (1827).
  53. Id.
  54. Id.
  55. See Crepelle, supra note 3, at 71.
  56. See Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584, 2595 (2015).
  57. Leonard v. Texas, 137 S. Ct. 847 (2017) (cert. denied but with additional statements from Thomas, J.).
  58. See Allison Morse, Good Science, Bad Law: A “Multiple Balancing”Approach to Adjudication, 46 S.D. L. Rev. 410, 441 (2001).
  59. See Christopher Jackson, Reasonable Persons, Reasonable Circumstances, 50 SanDiego L. Rev. 651, 653-55 (2013) (discussing that there is no objective way to measure what a “reasonable person” is because each person’s concept of what is reasonable is different).
  60. See Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 171 (1976).
  61. See Connecticut v. Doehr, 501 U.S. 1, 2 (1991).
  62. Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471, 481 (1972).
  63. See id.
  64. 424 U.S. 319, 321 (1976).
  65. Id.
  66. See, e.g., United States v. James Daniel Good Real Property, 510 U.S. 43, 46 (1993).
  67. Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 321 (1976).
  68. Id.
  69. See Crepelle, supra note 3, at 330-31.
  70. See One 1958 Plymouth Sedan v. Pennsylvania, 380 U.S. 693, 702 (1965).
  71. See Crepelle, supra note 3, at 328.
  72. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 55.
  73. See Crepelle, supra note 3, at 330–31.
  74. Mathews, 424 U.S. at 321.
  75. See id.
  76. See Asset Forfeiture Practice and Procedure, supra note 21, at 65-66.
  77. See Crepelle, supra note 3, at 315.
  78. Mathews, 424 U.S. at 321.
  79. See C.J. Ciaramelia, Inside Mississippi’s Asset Forfeiture Extortion Racket, Reason, (Jan. 5, 2017, 10:00 AM) (it can cost $1,500 just to file with the court to contest an asset forfeiture proceeding).
  80. See About Us, CCMA, (last visited May 10, 2018); see also Labour Relations Act 66 of 1995 (S. Afr.).
  81. See id.
  82. See id.
  83. See id.
  84. See id.
  85. See id.
  86. See Balko, supra note 7.
  87. See id.; see also Leonard v. Texas, 137 S. Ct. 847, 848(2017) (cert. denied, but with ad­ditional statements from Thomas, J.).
  88. See Sneed, supra note 144. For more information and updates, visit