Civil Forfeiture: The War on Your Wealth
by Mark Nestmann
“A man’s home may be his castle, but that does not keep the government from taking it.”
~ U.S. v. Hendler
More than two centuries ago, when the United States first became a country, customs duties on goods entering through the nation’s ports were a primary source of revenue. Naturally, shipowners didn’t want to pay the duties. But if they didn’t pay, customs officials could confiscate their ship and all of its cargo.
Until the mid-1980s, revenues from such “civil forfeitures” were low. Nearly all civil forfeitures resulted from seizures of vehicles and boats used to smuggle illegal drugs or other contraband across U.S. borders.
That changed in 1984, when Congress enacted a tough anti-drug law with greatly enhanced civil forfeiture provisions. The law permitted state, local, and federal agencies to keep most or even all of the property they confiscate, or sell it to generate revenue. Congress also decreed that the government was entitled not only to the proceeds of a drug trafficking offense, but also to all property derived from, connected to or facilitating drug-related offenses.
Two years later, in 1986, Congress enacted a strict anti-money-laundering law. The act authorized civil forfeiture of all property representing the proceeds of, involved in, or facilitating a “specified unlawful activity.” The 1986 act, in effect, expands the scope of civil forfeiture from customs and narcotics violations to violations of virtually any criminal or regulatory infraction. Violations of nearly 400 federal laws and tens of thousands of state or local laws are now considered “specified unlawful activity.”