What is a Vehicle Forfeiture?

Charity Delich

Vehicle forfeiture occurs in some jurisdictions when a government takes a person’s car because the person has committed a crime. Once the car has been seized, it becomes the government’s property. As the new owner, the government usually has the right to auction off or sell the car. If the offender leases the car, then the government will generally return it to the lessor.

Someone with multiple DUI convictions might face vehicle forfeiture.
Someone with multiple DUI convictions might face vehicle forfeiture.

Vehicle forfeiture most commonly occurs when a person has had multiple substance abuse-related violations, such as two or more convictions for driving while intoxicated (DWI) or driving under the influence (DUI). It can also happen if a person uses the car to commit a crime, such as transporting illegal drugs, and does not show up at his or her trial. In some cases, a government may institute a vehicle forfeiture proceeding if someone continues driving even after his or her driver’s license has been suspended or revoked.

In a typical vehicle forfeiture action, the owner of the car receives a forfeiture notice from the government. He or she normally has a set time period to challenge the notice, often thirty days from the date of notice. If the notice is challenged, a judge generally hears the case and decides whether the government is entitled to the car. If the notice is not challenged, the owner is typically considered to have given up his or her right to protest the action.

A number of defenses to a vehicle forfeiture action exist. If the owner’s car was being driven by a third party, the action is typically dropped. An owner who was driving may also object to the forfeiture for a reason tied to the criminal charge. For example, the action may be dropped if the arresting officers committed procedural errors when stopping and arresting the owner. In some circumstances, an owner can post a bond or hand over the vehicle’s title in exchange for receiving it back.

Once a government takes over ownership of the car, it ordinarily has the right to sell it or auction it off. Any money from the sale is not returned to the owner. Instead, it is distributed in accordance with the applicable vehicle forfeiture statute. Most statutes provide that any proceeds are first given to entities or individuals with secured interests on the car, as long as they didn’t aid in the commission of the crime. Proceeds may also go to an innocent co-owner or to pay for court-ordered restitution relating to the crime.

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