Under Civil Asset Forfeiture laws, the DEA can seize assets from people suspected of engaging in drug dealing or organized crime, even if no charges are filed.
Civil Asset Forfeiture
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is allowed to seize assets from people who are suspected of criminal activities including drug dealing and organized crime. Civil Asset Forfeiture permits the DEA to seize cash, cars, real estate, and personal assets from suspected criminals, even if they are not charged with a crime. According to the Department of Justice, 81 percent of the cash seized came from people who were not convicted of doing anything wrong. Since 2007, that equates to almost $4 billion is seized assets.
In a recent Department of Justice report, concerns were addressed about the lack of a connection between law enforcement efforts and asset seizures. In 100 cases studied, the department found no discernible connection in 56 percent of seizure cases. The report highlights one case in Bal Harbour Florida where a special police department task force seized over $49 million in assets, arrested 84 suspected criminals, yet filed no criminal charges.
In 2017, a couple’s Philadelphia home was seized by the DEA. The couple had never been charged with any crime, but their son was suspected of dealing heroin out of the house. The DEA was allowed to seize the house because it was tied to illegal activities, even though the couple had no knowledge of their son’s alleged drug dealing.
Over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued numerous rulings that uphold civil forfeiture, even though there are concerns that it violates Fifth Amendment rights. The court has ruled that it’s legal and constitutional for the government to seize assets, even from innocent persons, if suspected illegal activities are tied to such assets.
The process of civil forfeiture raises many questions about legitimate interests of law enforcement in asset seizures and the intended purpose of federal and state civil asset forfeiture programs. What happens to all that cash and property that is seized? Why aren’t the alleged criminals ever charged or convicted of a crime? The American Civil Liberties Union and a St. Paul criminal attorney have expressed concerns about the legality of seizing money and property from individuals who may not have committed any crime at all.