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Modern Forfeiture Laws, The Distinction Between Criminal And Civil Forfeiture, Constitutional Challenges, Bibliography

Forfeiture is the loss or confiscation of one's property in consequence of a crime, offense, or breach of obligation. It is an ancient practice sustained by differing rationales through the centuries. In biblical times, religious ideas supported the view that property causing death was "guilty" and had to be destroyed as a form of expiation. In medieval England, offending property was forfeited to the king for religious purposes in a practice known as deodand. Later, these forfeitures became a source of crown revenue, and confiscation was justified as a penalty for carelessness.

Early English law also permitted forfeiture of one's estate upon conviction of treason or other felony. The theory behind estate forfeitures was that criminal acts were a breach of the king's peace and warranted a loss of property. By statute, English law also provided for the forfeiture of property, such as ships or cargo, used in violation of the customs and revenue laws. Customs and revenue forfeitures were actions in rem, that is, actions taken directly against the property. Unlike felony forfeitures, which required a prior conviction of a wrongdoer, custom and revenue forfeitures proceeded directly against a thing and did not depend on the conviction of anyone for anything. In the nineteenth century, England abolished deodand practice and, by 1870, eliminated most felony and treason forfeitures.

The deodand tradition never took root in the United States. Nor did the practice of forfeiture of estate as a consequence of a felony conviction. Indeed the U.S. Constitution (Art. III, sec. 3, c1.2) specifically limits the forfeiture of one's estate as a punishment for treason, and Congress, in 1790, prohibited forfeiture of one's estate as a consequence of a federal criminal conviction. The forfeiture concept that did flourish was the confiscation of property as a means of enforcing customs and revenue laws. Beginning in 1789, Congress enacted laws permitting the confiscation of contraband and the ships used to transport contraband, such as vessels transporting illegal munitions. These laws also authorized seizure of any goods imported or exported in violation of tariff obligations.

As in English practice, U.S. contraband, customs, and revenue forfeitures were accomplished by civil in rem proceedings that named the property itself as the defendant. Since the proceeding was against the thing, the owner had no personal liability beyond the value of his interest in the thing, and forfeiture was permissible even though an owner was not guilty of any crime and did not know of the offending use of his property. By seizing property subject to customs laws, the government could prevent an errant ship and its cargo from simply sailing away, and it could secure its revenues even if the ship owner could not be located. And if the items seized were contraband or dangerous, forfeiture enabled the government to remove the property from circulation and prevent harm to the public.



Alexander v. United States (1993).

Austin v. United States (1993).

Bennis v. Michigan (1996).

Calero-Toledo v. Pearson Yacht Co. (1974).

United States v. Bajakajian (1998).

United States v. James Daniel Good Real Property (1993).

United States v. Ursery (1996).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law