Innocent People Fall Victim to Civil Forfeiture [Video]
Imagine losing your house, your car, or even your money to law enforcement, but not being charged with or convicted of a crime.
“The presumption of innocence that applies in every criminal case, which is mandated by the constitution, does not apply in the civil forfeiture arena,” says Matthew Lee, a partner at the law firm Blank Rome in Philadelphia.
Civil forfeiture is happening in towns and cites across the country and it is perfectly legal.
“The defendant is a piece of property. It’s not a person. And that is, that makes forfeiture really an unusual legal concept.” says Lee.
Civil forfeiture has been around for hundreds of years, but during the Reagan administration, laws were written to allow the federal government to seize property connected to drug criminals, according to Lee.
“They wanted to be able to take away the tools of their trade. The tools that allowed drug kingpins to facilitate the massive trafficking of narcotics.”
States and local municipalities wrote their own forfeiture laws and today proceeds from the sale of seized property can be used by those agencies in the war on drugs.
In Philadelphia, courtroom 478 is where the civil forfeiture process begins. It’s where the prosecutor and the property owners first meet.
Usually the property owner is not represented by a lawyer and because forfeiture is a civil proceeding and not criminal, there is no right to an attorney.
“A layperson, with no training in the law has an extraordinarily difficult time navigating the courtroom 478 process, frankly many lawyers have a difficult time navigating that process.” says Lee.
Lee is also the president of the pro bono arm of the Philadelphia Bar Association, Philadelphia VIP, a clearinghouse that matches up lawyers with low income clients who need attorneys. If you receive a notice of civil forfeiture, Lee suggests the following:
- Don’t ignore the initial paperwork.
- Show up at the place, date and time on the notice you receive.
- Find an attorney.
Legal service organizations can help with what’s called the innocent owner defense.
“You have to prove, in a court of law that you were not involved in the underlying criminal activity and that you weren’t aware of the underlying criminal activity,” says Lee.
He believes that if property owners were granted the right to an attorney, that it would level the playing field.
“Because right now, the way the system works, it is, it is horribly out of balance and it weighted greatly in favor of the government.”
Meanwhile, a law written to cripple drug kingpins is catching a lot of innocent people in its net. In Philadelphia, this is Ed Alpern reporting for Lawyers.com.