Civil Forfeiture


Civil forfeiture occurs when the government seizes property under suspicion of its involvement in illegal activity. Such a proceeding is conducted in rem, or against the property itself, rather than in personam, or against the owner of the property; by contrast, criminal forfeiture is an in personam proceeding. For this reason, civil forfeiture case names often appear strange, such as United States v. Eight Rhodesian Stone Statues,

Alvarez v. Smith


When law enforcement officers seize personal property in the course of a drug investigation, how quickly should they be required to provide property owners with an opportunity to contest the validity of the seizure?


Civil forfeiture statutes allow law enforcement agencies to seize personal property without a warrant if the property is connected to illegal drug activity. A group of Chicago residents whose vehicles were seized organized a class action challenging the Illinois civil forfeiture statute on constitutional grounds. Specifically, they alleged that civil forfeiture improperly deprived them of due process because of the extensive delay the statute allowed before requiring actual civil forfeiture proceedings. After the trial court dismissed their complaint, the Seventh Circuit held the statute unconstitutional. The Supreme Court granted certiorari and now has an opportunity to clarify exactly what process is due to property owners facing statutory civil forfeiture proceedings.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

In determining whether the Due Process Clause requires a State or local government to provide a post-seizure probable cause hearing prior to a statutory judicial forfeiture proceeding and, if so, when such a hearing must take place, should district courts apply the “speedy trial” test employed in United States v. $8,850, 461 U.S. 555 (1983) and Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1972) or the three-part due process analysis set forth in Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976)?

Forfeiture Laws

The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees that no citizen can be deprived of property without due process of law. See U.S. Const. amend.

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Additional Resources 

·      Wex: Law about Due Process

·      Wex: Law about Forfeiture

·      Rules governing Krimstock hearings in New York City

·      Though civil forfeiture proceedings are necessarily civil in nature, readers may find the LII Wex Overview of Criminal Procedure helpful to understand the basic investigative process, including probable cause and exceptions to the warrant requirement.

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