The federal government's civil asset forfeiture process has its roots in maritime law — which allowed the seizure of pirate vessels — and it follows a process quite different than the one used in criminal cases.
Under civil asset forfeiture, a warrant is issued and money or property is "arrested" by federal authorities. The agencies, including DEA and U.S. Postal Inspection Service, then file notice for anyone to make a claim on the property. The notice includes a posting at www.forfeiture.gov.
If no claim is made after 30 days, the money goes to the federal government for dispersal.
If someone contests the seizure, federal prosecutors file suits "in rem," which means "against the property," in U.S. District Court, along with a complaint that outlines their argument for why there is probable cause to forfeit the cash or items in question.
The claimant must file a response to the government's complaint, and the case unfolds through various legal arguments in court filings until it is resolved.
All the federal civil forfeiture cases in Oregon are filed at the U.S. District Court in Portland. All are assigned presently to U.S. District Court Judge Malcolm Marsh, but just a tiny fraction of administrative forfeitures ever get filed in court, and trials are rare.
Fewer than five federal civil forfeiture trials have been held in Oregon in the past 25 years, according to court papers filed in one civil forfeiture case reviewed by the Mail Tribune.
For the government to win a case at trial, prosecutors must prove their case by a preponderance of evidence, meaning the government's case is more likely to be true than not. That is a far lighter threshold than "beyond a reasonable doubt," the threshold in criminal cases.
In some cases, claimants are able to negotiate a deal with prosecutors to get some of the cash or property returned.
Cave Junction grower Jedadiah Wissler, who allegedly supplied marijuana that was seized in 2010 in Texas while it was enroute to Florida, settled in a July agreement with federal prosecutors.
Wissler dropped his claim to $44,542 seized from his residence along with some growing equipment, which included an automated marijuana-trimming device called a "Twister," court records show. He also dropped his claim for a pistol and an AK-47 WAGR-10 rifle with scope and bayonet, court records show.
In turn, Wissler got to keep a seized pickup truck and unspecified assets in a local bank account, records show.