As previously discussed, the federal government may seize property pursuant to civil asset forfeiture proceedings under 18 U.S.C. § 983.  The primary way that a person can seek return of the property is to show that he or she is an “innocent owner.”

What does it mean to be an “innocent owner” of seized property: The “innocent owner” claim is found at 18 U.S.C. § 983(d).  The person seeking “innocent owner” status has the burden of proving that claim by a preponderance of the evidence. 18 U.S.C. § 983(d)(1).

Does it matter if I owned the property before or after the illegal conduct?  Yes.

If the person owned the property before any alleged illegal conduct, then the “innocent owner” must show that he or she did not know of the conduct giving rise to forfeiture; or upon learning of the conduct giving rise to the forfeiture, did all that reasonably could be expected under the circumstances to terminate such use of the property.  18 U.S.C. § 983(d)(2)(B) .

If the person owned the property after any alleged illegal conduct, then the “innocent owner” must show that—at the time that person acquired the interest in the property—he or she was a bona fide purchaser or seller for value and (including a purchaser or seller of goods or services for value); and did not know and was reasonably without cause to believe that the property was subject to forfeiture. 18 U.S.C. § 983(d)(3)(A).

Do courts look at other factors when ruling on an “innocent owner” claim?  Yes.

Courts look at a variety of factors pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 983(d)(3)(B).  These include:

  • The property is the primary residence of the claimant;
  • Depriving the claimant of the property would deprive the claimant of the means to maintain reasonable shelter in the community for the claimant and all dependents residing with the claimant;
  • The property is not, and is not traceable to, the proceeds of any criminal offense; and
  • The claimant acquired his or her interest in the property through marriage, divorce, or legal separation, or the claimant was the spouse or legal dependent of a person whose death resulted in the transfer of the property to the claimant through inheritance or probate, except that the court shall limit the value of any real property interest for which innocent ownership is recognized under this subparagraph to the value necessary to maintain reasonable shelter in the community for such claimant and all dependents residing with the claimant.

Our attorneys at Beggs & Lane have decades of experience in federal court forfeiture proceedings.  We can help navigate the civil asset forfeiture statutes.  Call us for a consult. .


By: Matthew P. Massey, Esq.

Beggs & Lane’s White Collar Criminal Defense and Internal Investigations Group is led by former First Assistant United States Attorney David McGee.  The Group includes Gregory R. Miller, a former United States Attorney for the Northern District of Florida; Charles T. Wiggins, a Board-Certified Civil Trial Lawyer and former criminal prosecutor with the Office of the State Attorney, First Judicial Circuit of Florida; and Matthew P. Massey, a former Assistant United States Attorney with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.