Nevada asset forfeiture laws allow the government to seize and forfeit property from you when the property has been
- used to carry out a felony, or
- derived from the proceeds of the felony
If you were honestly unaware of any criminal activity, you should be allowed to hold on to your land, money, and things that were used in a crime. Though people who were “willfully blind” to the criminal activity may still be forced into asset forfeiture.
Police generally have to obtain a magistrate judge’s permission in order to seize assets. If the police may have performed an unlawful search and seizure, then it may be possible to get the property back.
In this article, our Las Vegas Nevada criminal defense attorneys discuss the following asset forfeiture topics:
- 1. What is asset forfeiture in Nevada?
- 2. When does it occur?
- 3. What if I was ignorant of the crime?
- 4. What are asset forfeiture procedures?
- 5. How can I fight it?
1. What is asset forfeiture in Nevada?
Asset forfeiture is when you give up (“forfeit“) your ownership rights to property that has ties to criminal activity. Assets that are vulnerable to forfeiture have either:
- been used to carry out a felony, or
- been bought from the proceeds of felony activity1
Example: Rick uses his car to transport meth, which is a felony. He later bought a Rolex from the proceeds of his drug trafficking crimes. If a local law enforcement agency discovers Rick’s drug activities, he may be forced to give up his car because it was used in the commission of drug trafficking. He may also be forced to give up his Rolex because it was obtained with the proceeds of drug trafficking.
Any type of property is subject to forfeiture, including:
- Land and structures (real property);
- Fixtures or improvements to real property;
- Personal property, or interests in personal property;
- Vehicles, boats, planes, and other conveyances;
- Money, securities, or negotiable instruments; and
The purpose of asset forfeiture is both to punish the property owners for their crimes as well as to remove the “tools” of their criminal activity from society. The forfeited property becomes the property of the police department that seized it.3
2. When does it occur?
Asset forfeiture commonly occurs in Nevada felony cases involving:
- racketeering (NRS 207.400),
- gang crimes (NRS 193.168),
- drug crimes,
- murder (NRS 200.030),
- kidnapping (NRS 200.310),
- robbery (NRS 200.380),
- burglary (NRS 205.060),
- home invasion (NRS 205.067),
- grand larceny (NRS 205.220),
- fraud crimes,
- real estate crimes, or
- terrorism crimes4
Police generally do not try to seize assets used in misdemeanor offenses. For example, if you steal a stick of gum from a convenience store and drive away, you should not have to forfeit your car because petty larceny (NRS 205.240) is a minor crime.
3. What if I was ignorant of the crime?
You are not required to forfeit your assets used in — or derived from — criminal activity if you were genuinely ignorant of the criminal activity.
Example: Lisa is roommates with Helen. One day while Lisa is sleeping, Helen takes Lisa’s car to go to her ex-boyfriend’s house to burglarize it. Lisa had no idea and did not give Helen permission to use the car. Since Lisa had no knowledge of the burglary, she is an “innocent owner” and should not be forced to forfeit her car to the police.
Had Lisa in the above example suspected that Helen was using her car illegally but turned a blind eye, then Lisa could be required to forfeit their car:
Example: Lisa is roommates with Helen. Lisa overhears Helen telling a friend that she wants to take Lisa’s car to steal from her ex-boyfriend’s house. Lisa does not want to make trouble so she covers her ears, does not say anything, and hopes Helen was not being serious. Since Lisa has reason to know that Helen may be committing a felony using her car, Lisa is vulnerable to asset forfeiture of her car if Helen follows through with the burglary.
Lisa in the above example was “willfully blind” to Lisa’s criminality. She had reason to know that Lisa was up to trouble, but she purposely buried her head in the sand. Nevada law specifically says that people who practice “willful blindness” may have their property forfeited even though they did not personally commit a crime.5
4. What are asset forfeiture procedures?
Police generally have to get a magistrate judge’s permission before they may seize property that is subject to forfeiture. The judge will usually give permission — called “process” — to seize the property as long as:
- the judge has legal authority (“jurisdiction”) over the property, and
- there is a legal reason to take the property
However, there are exceptions where police may seize property without first getting processed by the magistrate judge, including:
- The police have probable cause to believe that the property poses a public health and safety risk;
- The police have probable cause to believe that the property is subject to forfeiture;
- The property is currently in foreclosure and the subject of a final judgment proceeding;
- The police seized the property in the commission of a legal arrest;
- The police seized the property in accordance with a legal search warrant; and
- The police seized the property in the course of a legal administrative inspection.
Whenever police seize property without first getting the magistrate’s permission, the police have to file a “complaint for forfeiture” with the court right away.6
5. How can I fight it?
Asset forfeiture can be extremely complex, and the cases are both civil and criminal in nature. Fighting an asset forfeiture case usually requires substantial document review and motion practice.
Unlike criminal justice matters, prosecutors in asset forfeiture proceedings do not have to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead they just have to present “clear and convincing” evidence, which is a lower standard than for getting a criminal conviction.7
If your property has been seized under the guise of asset forfeiture, retain an attorney experienced in taking law enforcement to task. It may be possible to get seized property returned if your attorney can show that the state denied you due process.
For additional help…
If the government is seizing your belongings in Las Vegas or elsewhere in Nevada, it is imperative you retain counsel as soon as possible. Often there is a short time limit in which you can get the property back. Call our Las Vegas criminal defense lawyers for legal advice.
See our related article on asset forfeiture under federal law.
- U.S. Department of Justice (justice.gov) Asset Forfeiture Program (AFP)
- Equitable Sharing Program (DOJ)
- Asset Forfeiture Fund (DOJ)
- H.R.1658 – Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 (106th Congress)
- U.S. Attorney General’s Office in Washington, DC
- Money Laundering – Financial Action Task Force (FATF)
- NRS 179.1164 Property subject to seizure and forfeiture; exceptions.
- NRS 179.1162 “Property” defined.
- See NRS 179.119 and NRS 179.1205.
- NRS 179.121.
- NRS 179.121.NRS 179.11635 “Willful blindness” defined. “Willful blindness” means the intentional disregard of objective facts which would lead a reasonable person to conclude that the property was derived from unlawful activity or would be used for an unlawful purpose.
- NRS 179.1165 Seizure of property: Requirement of process. See also Riley Smith, Police, prosecutors oppose proposed bill changing asset forfeiture for low-level drug crimes, Nevada Independent (April 5, 2921) (re. AB425 (2021) – “The bill … moves any forfeiture of property worth less than $5,000 related to the transportation, sale or trafficking of illegal drugs to a criminal, rather than separate civil, court action. It also prohibits police from seizing any cash amount less than $200, or a vehicle worth less than $2,000, from any forfeiture action with certain exemptions.”).
- NRS 179.1173 Proceedings for forfeiture: Priority over other civil matters; order to stay; standard of proof; conviction of claimant not required; confidentiality of informants; return of property to claimant; forfeiture as part of plea or stipulated agreement. Fergason v. Las Vegas Metro. Police Dep’t, (Nev. Supreme Court 2015) 131 Nev. Adv. Rep. 94, 364 P.3d 592 (“As amended in 2001, NRS 179.1173(4) now requires the State to “establish proof by clear and convincing evidence that the property is subject to forfeiture[.]”). Note that “clear and convincing” evidence is a higher standard than “by a preponderance of the evidence”, which is the standard in most civil cases.