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What Are the California Asset Forfeiture Laws?

Posted by Sam Israels | Dec 31, 2022

Asset forfeiture is the government's legal right to take someone's property due to a reasonable suspicion it was acquired through illegal conduct or was used to commit a crime.

Asset Forfeiture Laws in California

In asset forfeiture cases, the property owner was usually convicted of a criminal offense before it was taken by forfeiture, but there are exceptions. Sometimes, the government can seize property before an actual criminal conviction.

Law enforcement often uses California asset forfeiture laws for all property types and money. Still, there have been cases of government agents improperly seizing an owner's assets in forfeitures due to a family member's criminal drug enterprise or another type of criminal behavior.  

However, the government can't just take someone's property without legal notice, and some steps must be followed regarding asset forfeiture. For example, they have first to file a civil lawsuit against the asset they want to take.

To win their case and seize the property, they must show sufficient evidence demonstrating that the property in question was used in criminal activity. If you face asset forfeiture, you must immediately retain experienced legal counsel. Let's review this topic further below.

What Type of Property Can Be Forfeited?

Government agents have broad powers to seize almost any type of property if they can prove it's connected to criminal activity, such as the following items:

  • Houses that were bought with money from illegal activity;
  • Any cash acquired from illegal drug activity;
  • Any weapons that were involved in assault cases;
  • Any laptops or phones that were used in criminal activity;
  • Any cars or trucks that were used to transport stolen goods;
  • Any boats that were used to transport illegal drugs;
  • Any machine that was used to print counterfeit bills;
  • Any drugs and equipment used in manufacturing;
  • Any contraband such as illegal drugs or guns;
  • Any proceeds earned from illegal drug sales or other contraband;
  • Any real property acquired through a pattern of criminal activity.

The federal government seizes millions of dollars in drug-offense assets annually, while California receives a substantial amount in forfeiture distributions.

However, federal and state law enforcement sometimes exercises their power unjustly. For example, they seem to have unlimited power to seize and forfeit assets, but you have legal rights and can fight against their intimidation and abuse.

Perhaps government agents are attempting to seize a family vehicle they claim was used for drug distribution. Maybe they are trying to take home or commercial property they say was secretly used for drug manufacturing. Most California asset forfeitures are directly connected to violations of drug laws.

Is a Criminal Conviction Required?

Asset forfeiture for drug offenses often requires the government to obtain a criminal conviction of the person.

In other words, somebody must have been convicted of a primary or secondary criminal action for property such as cars, boats, airplanes, money, or other real estate to be taken by the government. However, there are a few exceptions.

No conviction is required to forfeit property related to drugs if a defendant for an original action does not show up for their case. Still, the government must show evidence that the property was connected to the crime.

Another exception is the forfeiture of cash or securities over $40,000. Again, a conviction is not first required, but the government still must prove the money was obtained by or intended for use in drug transactions.  

What Are the Procedures for Forfeiture?

There are different required procedures the government must follow related to forfeiture in drug offenses.

These include summary procedures, administrative procedures, and judicial procedures. The details of a drug case will determine the procedure. Let's review them below. 

  • Summary forfeiture permits the government to forfeit specific drugs without a procedure, such as heroin, MDMA, or LSD.
  • Administrative forfeiture is required when a case involves personal property worth less than $25,000. Police must provide a public notice about the property description, value, date, location of the seizure, and details on how to challenge the forfeiture. If nobody contests the forfeiture after 30 days, it can be sold. If there is a challenge, the case will go to court.
  • Judicial procedures are used when someone challenges the seizure of property under a $25,000 value and when police agencies seize assets worth over $25,000. A civil trial must occur before the property can be forfeited.

For the government to seize property connected with an allegation of organized crime allegation, they must obtain a conviction for a crime involving a pattern of two or more related crimes.

In other words, the criminal behavior must be done over time with the intent to profit from it financially, such as child pornography, extortion, or receiving stolen property.

What About the Asset Forfeiture Process?

Asset forfeiture in the state of California commonly occurs in three steps. Police agencies will first take control of the property by the following procedures:

  • Informing banks on notice to place a “hold” on an account,
  • Take physical possession of the personal property, or
  • Record forfeiture notices against property to prevent a transfer.

Once the government agents take control, the property owner loses the ability to sell or use it.

Asset Forfeiture Process in California

California Health and Safety Code 11469 HS seizure and disposition rules typically require the government to prove in court they have forfeiture rights. 

Health and Safety Code 11475 allows the government to act summarily without a court hearing, such as in some cases of illegal drugs.

Health & Safety Code 11488.5(a)(1) defines administrative forfeiture procedures that require only notice but allow the property owner to demand a court hearing.   

If you face asset forfeiture, we might be able to challenge the government's attempt or win the case at a forfeiture hearing.

Forfeiture laws and proceedings in California are often complicated. Sometimes, government agents don't follow the proper procedure and restrictions. As a result, we can protect your assets and reputation against improper government action.

We offer a free case evaluation via phone or contact form. Cron, Israels & Stark is located in Los Angeles, CA.

About the Author

Sam Israels

Sam J. Israels is a Law Firm partner with the Law Offices of Cron, Israels, & Stark. Mr. Israels received his J.D. degree from the Santa Clara University School of Law. Mr. Israels also previously worked at the Los Angeles Office of the City Attorney. He is admitted to practice law in the State o...

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