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What is civil forfeiture?


If you're a fan of comedian John Oliver, you may watch his show on HBO called "Last Week Tonight." If you do, then you may have seen the episode in which he talks about civil forfeiture. Per his style, Oliver explains this aspect of the law using humor. For some, this is done purely for entertainment purposes. But for others, his use of humor is a way of getting us to realize the incredible burden civil forfeiture places on people all over the country.

For those of our Atlanta readers who'd rather learn about the law in a different way, in today's post, we're going to look at what civil forfeiture is and how it's changed over time. By talking about civil forfeiture, we hope to highlight one of the many burdens anyone could face because of a criminal investigation, and we stress the need to obtain a good criminal defense attorney to assist in navigating through these minefields.

Civil forfeiture, also referred to as civil asset forfeiture, is a process by which investigators seize property or assets that are believed to be associated with a crime. The purpose of civil forfeiture, as explained by the Department of Justice, is to "disrupt or dismantle criminal organizations" by taking away the funds relied upon to conduct criminal activities.

In the past, federal civil forfeiture laws did not require a criminal conviction for the government to keep whatever was seized. In order to get back what had been taken, the owner of the property and/or assets had to effectively prove that their property ownership was innocent. As many will agree, this was an incredibly challenging and often insurmountable burden to meet. Any ensuing litigation also gave the government an additional investigative tool, a fact which often discouraged attempts to regain property.

Thankfully, small changes were made to forfeiture laws by former Attorney General Eric Holder back in March. The change to federal law now generally requires some evidence that a crime was actually committed in order to seize accounts. This offers a little more protection against abuses of the asset forfeiture program by government agencies, allowing innocent people to keep their assets instead of losing them wrongfully and having to fight to get them back.

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