Federal law enforcement agents from the DEA routinely seize quantities of cash that they suspect to be tied to or derived from narcotics trafficking. Frequently, these seizures happen in conjuncture with the arrests of those in possession of the cash, or pursuant to indictments. But most of the time, agents seize cash – even huge sums of it – without arresting anyone. In those cases, the owners or possessors of that seized cash have some difficult decisions to make.
In these cases, federal law generally requires the agents to send a notice to the person from whom the cash was seized. The person who receives the notice is typically given the opportunity to make a claim for the cash, which includes an explanation as to the source of the cash. This response must be made under penalty of perjury, and can include supplemental documentation from a related business (such as tax returns or bank statements), or sworn statements from other people, among other things. Every once in awhile, the agents return the cash to the claimant based upon the representations made by the claimant, or based upon the evidence demonstrated to the agency. Our attorneys have successfully assisted clients in getting cash returned by federal agents this way.
If, however, the agency refuses to return the money based upon these representations, then they must commence a civil forfeiture action in federal court. The precise procedures for doing so are outlined in 18 U.S.C. § 983. Ultimately, in a civil court proceeding, the federal agency (DEA) must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the seized cash represents proceeds of illegal activity. This is the civil standard for proof and it is much lower (easier) than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard necessary to prove a person’s guilt of a crime.