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How US law enforcement could seize the assets of Russian oligarchs

The US Justice Department last week had formed a task force to seize assets owned by Russian oligarchs in the US, as part of Washington’s efforts to push Moscow to end its invasion of Ukraine.

The news: If there is probable cause to believe the property is tied to a crime in the United States, a judge will grant the warrant. Certain crimes committed outside the United States, such as public corruption and drug trafficking, constitute grounds for civil asset forfeiture by US prosecutors.

  • This would bar the owner from selling or transferring the property, said Stefan Casella, a former federal prosecutor focusing on money laundering and asset forfeiture.
  • Prosecutors must file a civil asset forfeiture complaint in court for property worth more than $500,000 in order to permanently confiscate it. Federal prosecutors in the jurisdiction where the assets were located would prosecute the case.
  • “If the allegation were this money is derived from bribing Vladimir Putin, then you could commence a civil forfeiture action,” Casella said.
  • Casella added that proving the property’s owner committed a crime isn’t enough; prosecutors must also show that the asset in question was linked to the criminal activity.
  • According to Sarah Krissoff, a partner at law firm Day Pitney LLP and a former federal prosecutor, assets are frequently owned through anonymous companies and the property owner does not wish to appear in court.
  • “There are certainly circumstances where civil litigation is filed and the government is successful by default because the people on the other side of the aisle do not want to actually identify an interest in that property,” Krissoff said.
  • This can take years. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) filed civil forfeiture complaints in July 2016 to recoup more than $1 billion in assets linked to the looting of Malaysian sovereign wealth fund 1MDB. More than three years later, the DOJ reached a $700 million settlement with a Malaysian financier accused of being the scheme’s mastermind.
  • Prosecutors may file criminal charges against oligarchs and seek asset forfeiture as part of a possible punishment, but Russian oligarchs are unlikely to travel to the United States to stand trial. Civil claims against U.S. property can be filed even if the property owner is not in the country.
  • “A lot of these bad actors are not available to be prosecuted in the United States,” said Duncan Levin, managing partner at Tucker Levin PLLC and a former federal prosecutor.
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