Innocent Owner Defense: Civil Forfeiture
If the government has seized your assets, The Waltman Firm can help. We practice in innocent owner defense and civil forfeiture. Call us for more information.
Assets Seized? Can you Raise the Innocent Owner’s Defense?
Have you had property or money seized by a local law enforcement agency for suspicion of illegal conduct? The innocent owner defense may be your only chance to fight the forfeiture of your assets.
The Georgia Civil Forfeiture Statute, Uniform Civil Forfeiture Procedure Act, allows local law enforcement and other state authorities to seize and confiscate any property used in a crime, even if the owner is innocent. For example, if your car was seized because someone else used it in an illegal activity, you may lose it forever. However, there’s a solution.
As the owner of the seized property, you may be able to recover it if you file a well-substantiated innocent owner claim within the specified time limit.
With the assistance of the Waltman Firm, you may be able to get back what’s yours. We can help you prepare a strong claim with the required evidence. The burden of proof is on you, and proving innocent ownership may be challenging. Contact our experienced attorneys to recover your seized property.
What Is Innocent Owner Defense?
Federal law 18 U.S.C. 983(d) defines an innocent owner as an owner who did not know of the conduct giving rise to forfeiture or did all that could reasonably be expected to stop the illegal use of the property.
The innocent owner defense is frequently used by owners to recover their seized assets from the state. The property owner would have to argue and prove that they did not know about the crime, didn’t consent to it, and never participated in it.
According to O.C.G.A. § 9-16-17(a), the seizing authority must only prove that the seized property is connected to a crime. They don’t need to prove your involvement in the crime to seize your property.
However, civil forfeiture laws place the burden of proof on the owner of the property. They must prove their innocence by establishing that they:
- Didn’t know about the crime
- Didn’t consent to the crime
- Didn’t know and shouldn’t have reasonably known that the crime was likely to occur
- Didn’t receive profits from the crime
If the owner acquired the property interest after the illegal conduct occurred, they must prove they are a bona fide purchaser and that they weren’t part of an illegal transaction.
The Civil Forfeiture Procedure for Innocent Owners
O.C.G.A. § 9-16-12 elaborates on the steps you must take to reclaim your property. The civil forfeiture procedure in Georgia goes as follows:
- The seizing authority reports the seizure to the District Attorney within 30 days.
- The DA publishes a notice of the seized property within 60 days.
- The owner files a claim within 30 days of receiving the notice. The owner must describe the seized property and state under oath that they own the property. Proof is not required, but the owner can substantiate their claim with proof of ownership.
- The DA files a complaint for forfeiture, referred to as an action in rem, within 90 days after receiving the owner’s claim. A copy must be sent to anyone with an ownership interest in the seized assets.
- The owner or their attorney responds within 30 days with proof of their innocence. If the owner fails to file an answer, they forfeit the property.
- A bench trial is scheduled within 60 days of the last served complaint notice to the owner to determine whether the owner will forfeit or recover the property.
The outcome of this procedure relies solely on your defense. If you claim innocent ownership, it’s on you to provide the right and convincing documentation to prove it.
Moreover, if you fail to file the claim within the specified period, the government will keep, sell, or dispose of any property seized by law enforcement.
Consulting a civil asset forfeiture attorney as soon as you receive the seizure notice is crucial.
What Are Other Defenses to Asset Forfeiture?
While the innocent owner defense is the most commonly used defense against asset forfeiture, you may need to look at other alternatives. Other defenses include:
- The four-year statute of limitations
- Criminal charges have been dismissed in the main case
- Failure to provide notice of seizure
- Undue delay in filing a forfeiture action
- The forfeiture is disproportional to the offense
- Entrapment and duress
According to search and seizure laws in Georgia, law enforcement officers require a warrant to search or seize your property. If you believe your property was unlawfully seized, you can use it as a defense in your asset forfeiture case.
Civil forfeiture vs. Criminal Forfeiture
Criminal and civil forfeitures are types of asset forfeiture with different procedures and purposes.
In civil forfeiture, the action (in rem) is not against the owner but against the seized property that is believed to be linked to a crime. In a civil forfeiture case, the property is the defendant, whereas its owner is the claimant.
However, a criminal forfeiture action (in personam) is brought against the owner due to their involvement in criminal activity. Upon conviction, the owner will forfeit any property linked to the crime as part of their punishment.
If the authorities discover the owner’s involvement in the crime at any point during the civil forfeiture procedure, they can pursue a criminal forfeiture action and terminate the civil one. In this case, it’s important to consult an experienced criminal defense attorney.
How the Waltman Firm Can Help You Prepare Your Innocent Owner Claim
You have the right to recover your seized property, and we want to help you. Our attorneys have the necessary experience and knowledge to file the claim on your behalf and represent you during the forfeiture proceeding.
Besides the innocent owner defense, our lawyers can use any violations by the prosecution in the forfeiture proceeding to your advantage. If you are not served a notice or the seized assets are disproportional to the offense, you are entitled to recover your assets.
Allow our experienced team to help you to prove your ownership and innocence to regain your property. Contact us today!