Palmer George & Taylor PLLC

Asset forfeiture: government program gets scathing criticism

It seems reasonably likely that even many Americans who pay close attention to criminal justice topics and know something about asset forfeiture might not fully appreciate what that state and federal government tool is all about or how it is often used by authorities.

And that would be understandable. As we note on our website at the Coeur d'Alene law firm of Palmer George & Taylor PLLC, where staunch criminal defense is a core component of our legal practice, "Asset seizure laws are complex and require extensive knowledge of how judges interpret the evidence."

The central bottom line with asset forfeiture is that is often enables authorities to take the property -- anything from cash and vehicles to a home or other assets -- of an individual charged with a crime. The cited rationale of asset forfeiture has always been that its employment is aimed at taking away the spoils of crime for serious activities like drug trafficking or money laundering.

Reportedly, that goal has been largely sabotaged in recent years by a troublesome pattern of program abuse by local, state and federal officials taking property without any valid excuse for doing so, and often refusing to return it.

Such harsh criticism is far from being limited to individuals who have suffered losses. An official government report issued recently by the U.S. Treasury Department excoriates the IRS and the conduct of agents in its Criminal Investigation division who have for years opted for soft and inappropriate targets when they seize assets.

That means -- and in far too many cases -- seizures directed at good-faith business owners rather than demonstrated criminal enterprises. The above-noted inspector general's report discloses this shocking statistic: More than 90% of seizure cases it looked into "were of businesses and individuals whose funds were obtained legally."

Congress has taken due notice of program improprieties and the attendant need for material changes to occur. It has conducted multiple investigations recently, with a recent Capitol Hill probe bringing ringing endorsements for modifications that will better ensure individuals "are advised of their rights and treated with respect."

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