New Restrictions on Civil Asset Seizure introduced in the US

Seizing criminal assets and taking the profit out of crime is widely seen as one of the main weapons in the fight against transnational organised criminal organisations. For the Cocaine Route Programme asset freezing and seizing are both long term objectives and key indicators for successful interventions. The programme is therefore supporting regional networks like the Red de Recuperación de Activos in Latin America and Financial Investigation Units of partner countries. Most countries are at an early stage, there are often legal difficulties, technical difficulties, great risks for policy makers, and the problems with the orderly disposal of assets.

It is interesting to then learn from the United States, that the Attorney General Eric Holder has restricted the use of civil asset forfeiture by federal agents and that the stage government of New Mexico has ended the practice of civil forfeiture outright. The reason behind this is two-fold. First of all, the practice that allowed police officers to seize property even before a suspect had been charged on the grounds that the asset was connected to a crime. It allowed law enforcement to confiscate money, vehicles, electronic devices, on mere suspicion and placing the onus on the suspect to prove that the link was non-existing. Many citizens decided not to pursue any claims because the high costs of litigation would outweigh the benefits of retrieving their property.

Dubbed by critics as ‘policing for profit’ the practice became open to abuse, which is why the Republican governor Susana Martinez (R) abolished the practice. She said that the changes in legislation would “improve the transparency and accountability of the forfeiture process and provide further protections to innocent property owners ”while ensuring that our law enforcement officers have the training, protection, and tools necessary to fight crime within our borders. The burden is on public officials at every level to ensure that our law enforcement officers are respected for the work they do and have all the resources they need to protect our families.”

Following the change in legislation the state retains the powers of criminal forfeiture which means the police will still be able to seize property – but only after the defendant has been convicted. For other country it is a valuable lesson about the safeguards that need to be built into a system from the outset.