Asset forfeiture is the process by which the government seizes property that is allegedly connected to some form of criminal activity. It mostly came about as a means to fight the war on drugs but has expanded greatly over the decades, bringing with it a host of potential problems for those who become subject to forfeiture.
Of the two potential types of asset forfeiture, criminal forfeiture is the most straightforward. It only occurs following an actual criminal conviction, meaning that any property seized is only taken once it has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt that a person committed a crime. Although the forfeiture itself is part of the sentencing, rather than being subject to the same high standard of proof as the conviction, the conviction itself at least acts as a substantial guardrail.
Unlike criminal forfeiture, civil forfeiture is much easier for the government to use. It requires neither a conviction nor a criminal charge to be filed. Instead, all the federal government must do is provide probable cause that one or more targeted assets are linked to criminal activity.
Since the target of the forfeiture is the asset, rather than a person (as in a criminal case), it doesn’t have the same level of due process protection. Because of the relative ease with which the government can bring a civil forfeiture action, it is much more widely used and significantly easier to abuse.
If you become subject to a forfeiture, you need legal help immediately. There are time constraints on your ability to challenge the forfeiture, which must be met.