The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) uses forfeiture to attack the financial structure of drug trafficking and money laundering groups worldwide, from the lowly courier carrying cash or drugs to the top levels of drug cartels. Forfeiture, particularly civil forfeiture (see below), is very effective against drug crimes committed for profit.
DEA's Responsibility and Authority
DEA agents swear to uphold the Constitution, and their actions are subject to federal court review. DEA’s authority to investigate crime and forfeit assets comes from Congress.
To seize property, DEA agents must have probable cause (the same legal standard needed to arrest someone) and obtain a warrant from a judge (with some exceptions).
The US Department of Justice oversees the Forfeiture Program.
Forfeiture is the government taking of property, that has been illegally used or acquired, without compensating the owner.
The United States Government uses asset forfeiture to seize and forfeit property from those involved in crime which benefits law enforce-ment and the public.
Assets subject to seizure include cars, cash, real estate, or anything of value used to commit a drug crime or bought with drug proceeds.
Forfeiting assets earned from or used in criminal activities helps law enforcement agencies because the forfeiture:
Takes the profit of crime away;
Removes instrumentalities of crime;
Aids in dismantling drug trafficking and money laundering groups;
Weakens criminal enterprises;
There are two types of forfeiture: judicial and non-judicial (also known as administrative forfeiture).
DEA starts the administrative forfeiture process by mailing notice letters to interested parties and advertising the seized property on the Internet.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office begins the judicial forfeiture process by filing either a civil complaint against the property (e.g., United States v. $150,000 U.S. Currency) or bringing criminal charges against a party (e.g., United States v. John Smith).
Administrative Forfeiture is the process by which DEA processes the forfeiture without going to court. Administrative Forfeiture will be used to forfeit property unless (1) by law the property has to be forfeited judicially or (2) a party files a valid claim, which changes the administrative forfeiture into a judicial forfeiture.
A federal judge must forfeit real estate and most property valued over $500,000, with some exceptions.
- Criminal forfeiture is included as part of a defendant’s criminal prosecution. If the defendant is convicted or has a plea agreement, the court may forfeit the property.
- Civil forfeiture is a proceeding brought against the property itself. The government must prove that the property is connected to a crime, but a criminal conviction is not required. It is very similar to all other lawsuits involving property in the U.S., and allows the government to forfeit property when the property owner is unavailable.
The Constitution requires due process before the government can forfeit property. This means owners have the right to be notified about the forfeiture proceedings and the right to be heard in the proceeding.
- No Cost Bond. Owners do not have to file a cost bond with a claim;
Right to Notice. DEA must mail a letter to all interested parties informing them of the forfeiture proceedings no more than 60 days after a seizure (with some exceptions);
Publication. DEA must advertise the seizure online for 30 days;
Proof. In all judicial forfeiture cases, the government must prove its case against the seized asset by a preponderance of the evidence (the same legal standard in any civil trial);
To Seek the Property’s Return
(1) Petition DEA for the return of the property and/or;
(2) File a valid claim with DEA, which means the person intends to challenge the forfeiture.