By John A. Fortin, Esq.
By seeking out and providing pro bono representation, the legal profession is indisputably enriched and young lawyers in particular gain invaluable experience early in their careers. My pro bono practice has thus far been focused on civil rights. I have predominantly represented the rights of my clients when they have faced property forfeitures. Through pro bono work, I have been fortunate to present two oral arguments before the Supreme Court of Nevada, signed an amicus brief which led to a groundbreaking civil rights decision in Nevada, and gained and honed litigation strategy and appellate practice skills that I apply every day to my private practice.
Generally, civil forfeitures of property are authorized by statute and the law relies upon a legal fiction that the property committed the crime. In Nevada, property forfeitures can only occur when a criminal defendant is found guilty at trial or through a plea bargain. Following the criminal proceeding, the property—a home, a car, or the cash found on or near a defendant—may then be forfeited to the government. To be sure, removing the ill-gotten gains of criminal networks is sound public policy. However, as has been well documented, most property forfeitures fall on those least able to defend themselves against the forfeiture as opposed to the well-funded and well-represented El Chapos whom the forfeiture laws are designed to deter.
These impacted individuals (who may be relatives, spouses, or intimate partners and innocent of the underlying criminal conduct) can barely afford to meet their daily needs—let alone afford counsel. The loss of a home, a car, or even the little cash they might have in their pockets for a few days normally spells disaster. Their challenge involves more than money; it involves time. Property forfeiture proceedings can take years and preventing access to the seized property can truly upend the lives of those most vulnerable and their families.
While there are cases pending before both the Nevada and United States Supreme Courts that could address some of these issues, more robust fixes likely would involve the state legislature and/or the bar. On the legislative front, our representatives could enact greater innocent property owner protections. Until those underlying reforms happen, the bar is best positioned to consider investing more pro bono resources to support those in need who face property forfeitures. Unfortunately, property forfeiture is an area of law that is often under the radar, but it is an area of law where young lawyers will find an extraordinary opportunity to make a difference at the intersection of law, public policy, and humanity.
My experience in defending claimants and innocent property owners has provided meaningful assistance to those in need, enriched my practice, and truly made me understand the humbling power a license to practice law can provide to our community.
About the author
John A. Fortin, Esq., is a commercial litigator and appellate attorney at McDonald Carano. He served for over a decade in the U.S. Navy on active duty and continues to serve in the reserves today.
About the article
This article was originally published in the Communiqué (Dec. 2023), the official publication of the Clark County Bar Association. See https://clarkcountybar.org/about/member-benefits/communique-2023/communique-december-2023/
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