An overview of civil asset forfeiture in North Carolina

North Carolina residents can benefit from understanding civil asset forfeiture laws, which allow property seizure even if a person hasn’t been convicted.

As many people in Charlotte know, a criminal conviction can carry severe sanctions in North Carolina, including incarceration and collateral consequences. However, many state residents don't realize they can also face serious consequences for suspected criminal activity under federal civil asset forfeiture laws, which allow the seizure of personal assets. Since forfeiture can result in significant personal losses, state residents can benefit from understanding these proceedings and their rights during an asset forfeiture case.

Basis for forfeiture

Asset forfeiture laws allow law enforcement authorities to seize property that is somehow connected to criminal activity, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This includes property that has been directly used in this activity, such as vehicles used to transport narcotics, and property purchased with proceeds from criminal activity. Asset forfeiture is often used in cases that involve alleged federal, drug or white collar crimes.

Asset forfeiture can be civil or criminal in nature. In criminal forfeiture proceedings, property cannot be seized until its owner has been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and convicted. In civil forfeiture, authorities can seize property if they show probable cause. As The Washington Post observes, there are numerous documented civil asset forfeiture cases in which property has been taken from people who were never convicted or even formally charged with a crime.

Legality in North Carolina

North Carolina is the only state that lacks a law authorizing civil asset forfeiture, according to Forbes. Under state law, a person must be convicted before any of his or her property can be seized. However, people in the state are still at risk for losing their property under federal asset forfeiture laws.

The Washington Post explains that the Justice Department has a program in place that permits state law enforcement authorities to partner with federal authorities and conduct forfeiture proceedings under federal laws. This program also allows state authorities to keep a portion of the property that they seize. Some critics have expressed concerns that this incentivizes authorities to seize assets even in cases when the occurrence of a crime is questionable.

Prevalence of forfeiture

The value of assets seized through civil forfeiture has increased nationally over the last decade, according to The Washington Post, which suggests that forfeiture actions are becoming more common. In 2014, the total worth of the property that federal authorities seized reportedly exceeded $5 billion. Here in North Carolina, authorities have seized assets valued at over $130 million, according to Forbes.

Contesting forfeiture proceedings

Property owners can challenge forfeiture proceedings by filing a claim of ownership, but the filing deadlines are short. Once the deadline passes, property owners are typically left without recourse. Therefore, anyone who has received notice of forfeiture proceedings in North Carolina should consider seeking the advice of an attorney immediately. An attorney may be able to help a person understand the complex federal forfeiture laws and seek the return of any wrongly seized property.