Civil forfeiture threatens the constitutional rights of all Americans. Using civil forfeiture, the government can take your home, business, cash, car or other property on the mere suspicion that it is somehow connected to criminal activity—and without ever convicting or even charging you with a crime. Most people unfamiliar with this process would find it hard to believe that such a power exists in a country that is supposed to recognize and hold dear rights to private property and due process of law.
It has been called “one of the most controversial practices in the American criminal justice system.” But civil forfeiture was, until the 2010s, largely unknown to the public, to pundits and even to elected officials, despite hundreds of millions of dollars in property being seized and forfeited every year across the United States. Civil forfeiture is a mechanism by which law enforcement agencies can seize and keep property on the mere suspicion that it is connected to a crime.
In contrast to criminal forfeiture, where property is taken only after a criminal conviction, civil forfeiture allows law enforcement to take property from innocent people who have never been formally accused of a crime, let alone convicted of one. This evasion of the criminal justice system is based on a legal fiction in which property thought to be connected to an alleged crime is considered “guilty” of having somehow assisted in the commission of that crime. In criminal forfeiture, the government proceeds against a person charged with a crime; in civil forfeiture, the government proceeds against property. The civil forfeiture process generally includes two distinct actions: seizure and forfeiture. Seizure occurs when law enforcement officials—police officers, sheriff’s deputies, federal agents—confiscate property they suspect is related to criminal activity. Practically anything can be seized by law enforcement—cash, vehicles, airplanes, jewelry, homes, musical instruments, farm implements, home furnishings, electronics and more. Once property has been seized, prosecutors file civil actions against it in order to forfeit, or keep, it.
KY Civil Asset Forfeiture
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