Many people don’t realize that being charged with a crime can result in many or all of their assets being seized by the government. Both Florida and the federal government have granted themselves the authority to confiscate any property law enforcement believes can be tied to certain criminal activity, and both use that authority to the fullest in connection with a variety of drug and white collar crimes. This is called civil forfeiture.
Sometimes, criminal defendants are left with no money to hire a lawyer, as we discussed earlier this month on this blog. A Florida case is now headed to the U.S. Supreme Court after federal authorities seized all of a married couple’s assets, leaving them no way to pay their defense attorneys.
Unfortunately, courts have previously allowed this, and we will have to wait for the Supreme Court’s decision before we know if that will change. Regardless of whether they win that appeal, if they are acquitted they can have their assets returned through a relatively simple process.
You do have the right to challenge civil forfeitures before conviction. It’s unclear whether the couple headed to the Supreme Court attempted to do so, and the truth is that many criminal defense attorneys are unfamiliar with the process.
First, these proceedings are civil, not criminal cases. That means the government is not required to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that you obtained the assets as a result of unlawful activity. Instead, the burden of proof is a much lower, more-likely-than-not standard, as in all civil cases.
Unfortunately, once your money or property has been seized, the burden is on you to prove it’s more likely than not that some or all of your assets were obtained perfectly legally. If the crime you’re charged with involves money, however, that can be a challenge.
Even guilty people rarely keep detailed records of how they earned their money and where they spent it, or set up completely separate accounting systems. Even if you had, you probably wouldn’t want to share them with the government.
If you’re charged with a crime and your assets have been seized, you need to defend yourself in both situations. Make sure to obtain legal advice from an attorney experienced in both.