Asset forfeiture has become one of the most powerful and important tools that federal law enforcement can employ against all manner of criminals and criminal organizations -- from drug dealers to terrorists to white collar criminals who prey on the vulnerable for financial gain. Derived from the ancient practice of forfeiting vessels and contraband in Customs and Admiralty cases, forfeiture statutes are now found throughout the federal criminal code.

Why do forfeiture?

Federal law enforcement agencies use the forfeiture laws for a variety of reasons, both time-honored and new. Like the statutes the First Congress enacted in 1789, the modern laws allow the government to seize contraband -- property that is simply unlawful to possess, like illegal drugs, unregistered machine guns, pornographic materials, smuggled goods and counterfeit money.

Forfeiture is also used to abate nuisances and to take the instrumentalities of crime out of circulation. For example, if drug dealers are using a "crack house" to sell drugs to children as they pass by on the way to school, the building is a danger to the health and safety of the neighborhood. Under the forfeiture laws, we can shut it down. If a boat or truck is being used to smuggle illegal aliens across the border, we can forfeit the vessel or vehicle to prevent its use time and again for the same purpose. The same is true for an airplane used to fly cocaine from Peru into Southern California, or a printing press used to mint phony $100 bills.

The government also uses forfeiture to take the profit out of crime, and to return property to victims. No one has the right to retain the money gained from bribery, extortion, illegal gambling, or drug dealing. With the forfeiture laws, we can separate the criminal from his profits -- and any property traceable to it -- thus removing the incentive others may have to commit similar crimes tomorrow. And if the crime is one that has victims -- like carjacking or fraud -- we can use the forfeiture laws to recover the property and restore it to the owners far more effectively than the restitution statutes permit.

Finally, forfeiture undeniably provides both a deterrent against crime and as a measure of punishment for the criminal. Many criminals fear the loss of their vacation homes, fancy cars, businesses and bloated bank accounts far more than the prospect of a jail sentence. In fact, in many cases, prosecution and incarceration are not needed to achieve the ends of justice. Not every criminal act must be answered with the slam of the jail cell door. Sometimes, return of the property to the victim and forfeiture of the means by which the crime was committed will suffice to ensure that the community is compensated and protected and the criminal is punished.

The parade of horribles

The expansion of forfeiture into all of these areas has, of course, been controversial. When laws that were designed to seize pirate ships from privateers are applied, over the course of a decade, to the seizure of homes, cars, businesses and bank accounts, there are a lot of issues to sort out. How do we protect innocent property owners? What procedures afford due process? When does forfeiture go too far, in violation of the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment? The ten forfeiture cases that the Supreme Court has had on its docket in the past five terms are part of this sorting out process. There are certain to be more; and Congress will need to pass legislation to fill in many of the loopholes.

An informed debate on these issues is welcome. The debate is not informed, however, if it is muddled by the misconceptions and plain old-fashioned misstatements that seem to pop up in every article critical of asset forfeiture. Roger Pilon's article, containing the usual parade of horribles, is a good example.

Once again we are told that forfeiture is based on an absurd legal "fiction" that the property is guilty of the crime, which implies that property can be forfeited without proof that a crime was committed by a real live person. We're told that the government can seize property "almost at will," i.e. without due process, and that innocent people find the process so unfair that they walk away from their property without filing claims. And we're told that even when they do file claims, innocent owners just don't have any rights. Let's see if we can't inject a little truth and understanding into the debate on these points.

The legal "fiction"

There are three types of forfeiture under federal law: administrative forfeiture, civil judicial forfeiture, and criminal forfeiture. An administrative forfeiture is essentially a default proceeding. It occurs when property is seized and no one files a claim contesting the forfeiture. By definition, all administrative forfeitures are uncontested. Between 80 (eighty) and 85 (eighty-five) percent of all forfeitures handled by the Department of Justice fall into this category.

If someone does file a claim to the property, the government has a choice (assuming Congress has provided both options by statute). It can file a civil complaint against the property in district court, thus commencing a civil judicial forfeiture; or it can include a forfeiture count in the indictment in a criminal case, which sets the stage for a criminal forfeiture. In 1995, the Justice Department began aggressively training criminal prosecutors in the use of the forfeiture laws, so that now more than half of all contested forfeitures are criminal forfeitures.

Just because a forfeiture is handled administratively or civilly, of course, doesn't mean that there isn't a related criminal case. In all forfeiture cases there must be proof that a crime was committed by someone. In fact, in more than eighty percent of all forfeitures, including administrative and civil forfeitures, there is a parallel arrest and/or criminal prosecution. There wouldn't have been such a wail and cry about forfeiture constituting a violation of the Double Jeopardy Clause a few years ago if that weren't so. (Between the Ninth Circuit's decision in United States v. $405,089.23 in 1994 and the Supreme Court's decision putting the double jeopardy issue to rest in United States v. Ursery, thousands of federal prisoners filed post-conviction actions alleging that their criminal conviction and the civil forfeiture of their property constituted double jeopardy.)

The legal "fiction" that the property is "guilty" of the crime is simply a shorthand for the way a civil forfeiture case is styled: United States v. $405,089.23, United States v. 92 Buena Vista Ave., and so forth. In legal parlance, the property in such a case is the "defendant." But property doesn't commit crimes; people do. If there isn't proof that a person committed a crime, there is no forfeiture. If our normally verbose legal system styled its civil forfeiture cases to set forth the full legal theory, this would be obvious. The above cases, for example, might have been called United States v. $405,089.23 in Proceeds Earned by Charles Arlt From Selling Methamphetamine; or United States v. A Residence at 92 Buena Vista Ave. Purchased with Drug Proceeds that Joseph Brenna, a Drug Dealer, Gave to His Girlfriend.

In short, forfeiture is a way of reaching the property involved in a crime, but the focus is on the crime, without which there can be no forfeiture.

Why do civil forfeiture?

If all forfeitures involve the commission of a crime, and the vast majority involve an arrest or prosecution, why does the government use civil forfeiture at all? It is not, as many contend, because it is necessarily easier. To the contrary, the easiest way to forfeit a criminal defendant's property in many cases is not to file a separate civil action, but to present the forfeiture issue to the same jury that just convicted the defendant in the criminal case. But sometimes, criminal forfeiture isn't available or doesn't make sense.

Take the administrative forfeiture cases for example. There is no point in including a criminal forfeiture count in an indictment and presenting the issue to a jury if the defendant is not going to contest the forfeiture. If a defendant facing criminal conviction for drug trafficking thinks it pointless to contest the forfeiture of the cash seized from him as drug proceeds at the time of his arrest, it is equally pointless to clutter the indictment with a forfeiture count when administrative forfeiture will answer.

What about the contested forfeitures that are done civilly? The reasons for this are many. First, while there are over 100 civil forfeiture statutes, there are relatively few criminal forfeiture statutes. Drug proceeds can be forfeited either civilly or criminally, for example, but firearms, gambling proceeds, vehicles used to smuggle illegal aliens, and counterfeiting paraphernalia can only be forfeited civilly. See 28 U.S.C. §2461(a). This is a problem Congress needs to fix.

Second, criminal forfeiture requires a federal conviction for the crime giving rise to the forfeiture. If the defendant is dead or is a fugitive, there can be no prosecution and therefore no criminal forfeiture. If the defendant was prosecuted in a State case, the federal forfeiture has to be civil, because there is no federal prosecution for the criminal offense. And if the defendant is prosecuted for one crime, but the property was involved in a related but separate crime, the forfeiture has to be civil, because the criminal forfeiture is limited to the offense of conviction. For example, drug proceeds seized from a defendant at the time of his arrest must be forfeited civilly if the defendant is charged with possession of drugs with intent to distribute, because such money was necessarily the proceeds of an earlier drug deal, not the one for which the defendant is actually prosecuted.

Third, and perhaps most important, criminal forfeiture is limited to the property of the defendant. If the defendant uses someone else's property to commit the crime, criminal forfeiture accomplishes nothing. Only civil forfeiture will reach the property. For example, if a drug dealer uses an airplane to smuggle drugs into California, the government has an interest in seizing and forfeiting the plane. But suppose the only person arrested and prosecuted is the pilot. If he owns the plane outright, criminal forfeiture is the way to go. But if the plane is owned by a corporation, or a third-party in South America, or by the pilot jointly with his spouse, criminal forfeiture is pointless.

The same is true if we want to forfeit a crack house. We can prosecute the tenants in the building until the cows come home, but we will never be able to forfeit the building criminally if the tenants don't own it. If the building belongs to a slumlord who allowed his property to be turned into a crack house, we need civil forfeiture to shut it down.

Due Process

Whatever the reasons why civil forfeiture is essential to federal law enforcement, it goes without saying that the process must be fair. All property owners -- whether they be criminal defendants or third parties -- are entitled to due process of law. Mr. Pilon contends that due process is lacking. He says that the government can seize property "almost at will," that officials can "seize property, real or personal, without notice or hearing," and that innocent parties find the system so daunting that they abandon their property without filing a claim. On all points, he is greatly mistaken.

Seizures of property for forfeiture are governed by the same rules that govern seizure of property for evidence -- the search and seizure requirements of the Fourth Amendment. See United States v. Lasanta, 978 F.2d 1300 (2d Cir. 1992). If federal agents want to seize property for forfeiture, they have to get a warrant, unless one of the recognized exceptions to the Fourth Amendment applies, like when cash is found in plain view in a vehicle that can be driven away, and there is probable cause to believe it's drug proceeds, or when property is found during a search incident to a lawful arrest. In fact, in many instances, forfeiture seizures are more limited than their evidentiary counterparts. See 18 U.S.C. §981(b)(2) (in money laundering cases, warrantless seizures are authorized during searches incident to arrest, but not in other exigent circumstances).

In real property cases, the rules are still more restrictive. In United States v. James Daniel Good Property, 114 S. Ct. 492 (1993), the Supreme Court held that real property may not be seized at all, even with a warrant based on a showing of probable cause, until the property owner has been given notice and an opportunity to be heard. In short, in real property cases, the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment requires the government to give property owners more "process" than is due under the Fourth Amendment.

Moreover, seizing the property isn't the end of the process; it's only the beginning. If someone wants to contest a forfeiture he has a right to file a claim, thereby forcing the government to file a civil or criminal forfeiture action in federal court. If the case is civil, the claimant has all the rights that attend normal civil litigation, including the right to discovery and the right to a trial by jury. Finally, the forfeiture verdict must be based on a preponderance of the admissible evidence, not the probable cause evidence that was sufficient for the seizure.

Of course, any system can be improved. The Justice Department has proposed legislation to make the government carry the burden of proof in civil forfeiture cases. We also have suggested making it easier for people to file claims in forfeiture cases by extending the filing deadlines, and we have proposed a remedy for those whose property is damaged in government custody. (The Justice Department's legislative proposal and supporting testimony are published in the record of the Hearing on the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act, H.R. 1916, House Committee on the Judiciary, 104th Congress, 2d Sess., Serial No. 94, July 22, 1996.) But it is preposterous to say that property owners are denied due process under current law.

The Uncontested Forfeitures

What should we make of the fact that so many forfeitures are uncontested? The critics, of course, see this as evidence that innocent property owners are walking away from their property without filing a claim because the procedures are unfair. But the opposite is far more likely. Four out of five forfeitures are uncontested because in most cases the evidence is so overwhelming that contesting the forfeiture would be pointless. A defendant charged with smuggling illegal aliens, for example, might see little advantage in contesting the forfeiture of the truck he was driving when he was arrested and the aliens were found. Remember, eighty percent of all forfeitures involve a parallel arrest or prosecution. Those are cases in which the defendant is in court anyway, has counsel, and yet most of the time does not object to the forfeiture.

Certainly, there are still due process issues to be worked out. One of the most nettlesome involves the current flood of post-conviction pleadings being filed by federal prisoners who contend that they didn't contest forfeiture actions because they didn't receive proper notice. See e.g. United States v. Clark, 84 F.3d 378 (10th Cir. 1996). Most commonly, the prisoners complain that the government sent the notice to the wrong jail or to a home address when the government knew that the person was incarcerated. Criminals have due process rights just like everyone else, so the government must find a way to provide notice of forfeiture actions to persons being held in jail. But these are hardly cases that involve innocent claimants not filing claims because the procedures are stacked against them.

Innocent Owners

In his discussion of Bennis v. Michigan, Mr. Pilon makes a persuasive argument that the Constitution does not adequately protect innocent owners in civil forfeiture cases. It is an argument, however, that has little relevance to federal forfeiture law.

Bennis, it must be remembered, was a State case. Michigan, apparently, does not provide statutory protection for innocent owners, and the Supreme Court held that no such protection is required by the Due Process Clause. Fair enough. But the fact that the Constitution doesn't protect innocent owners doesn't mean that the legislature cannot do so. In fact, Congress has included an innocent owner defense in virtually all of the most widely used federal forfeiture statutes. For example, the drug statutes, 21 U.S.C. §881(a)(4) and (7), say that neither vehicles nor real property, respectively, may be forfeited if they were used to commit a crime without the knowledge or consent of the owner.

Mr. Pilon's claim that "hotels and apartment buildings are today forfeited when their owners are unable to prevent drug transactions in them" is just plain wrong. Even a property owner who "knows" that his property is being used for an illegal purpose is protected from forfeiture if he shows that he took all reasonable steps to prevent the activity. See United States v. 141st Street Corp., 911 F.2d 870, 877-78 (2nd Cir. 1990) (landlord who knew building was being used for drug trafficking had opportunity to show he did not consent to such use), cert. denied, 111 S. Ct. 1017 (1991); United States v. Parcel of Real Property Known as 6109 Grubb Road, 886 F.2d 618, 626 (3rd Cir. 1989) (wife who knew of husband's use of residence for drug trafficking had opportunity to show she did not consent to such use); United States v. One Parcel of Real Estate at 1012 Germantown Road, 963 F.2d 1496 (11th Cir. 1992).

For example, the owner of a residential hotel doesn't have to put a stop to drug transactions on his property; he just has to do what a reasonable owner would do to try to stop it, like call the police, evict tenants convicted of committing drug crimes on the premises, and install security devices like locks and adequate lighting. See United States v. All Right, Title and Interest (Kenmore Hotel), 77 F.3d 648 (2d Cir. 1996).

What Congress Can Do

A key provision in the Justice Department's legislative proposal would codify this concept and thus extend the innocent owner defense to all federal forfeiture statutes. In addition to the other due process reforms discussed above, this would go a long way toward making sure that the forfeiture laws are up to date and protect the rights of all property owners. But there is more that Congress can do to enhance the forfeiture laws.

First, the criminal forfeiture statutes should be revised to make sure the government can use them in all cases where it's appropriate to do so. Criminal forfeiture should be available wherever civil forfeiture is authorized. The government also needs better tools to enforce criminal forfeiture judgments against convicted defendants, and needs to be able to restrain property subject to forfeiture, including substitute assets, pre-trial, to make sure that the assets are still around once the defendant is convicted.

Also, there is no rhyme or reason to the current forfeiture laws regarding the forfeiture of criminal proceeds. We can forfeit proceeds in drug cases, but not in fraud cases; we can forfeit the money paid to a "bag man" in a money laundering case, but not the money paid to a "hit man" in a murder-for-hire case. All criminal proceeds should be subject to forfeiture, and the term "proceeds" should be defined to mean gross proceeds, not net profits. It is absurd that some courts have allowed heroin traffickers to deduct their overhead expenses from the amount of proceeds subject to forfeiture. See United States v. McCarroll, 1996 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8975 (N.D. Ill. Jun. 19, 1996).

In these and many other ways, the forfeiture laws can be improved both to protect the rights of property owners and to allow the government to make full use of this dramatically successful law enforcement tool. Congress has that opportunity this year. If we can avoid the misstatements and misconceptions that serve only to polarize the debate, law enforcement, defense attorneys and legislators can work together to produce a genuinely comprehensive and effective body of laws to make forfeiture work for all of us.

*Stefan D. Cassella is the Assistant Chief, Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or polices of the Department of Justice.