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Tian Huiyu, former president of China Merchants Bank, was given the death penalty with a two-year reprieve for crimes including taking bribes, abuse of power, using undisclosed information for trading, insider trading and leaking insider information, the Changde Intermediate People's Court in Hunan province announced on Monday.

For taking bribes, Tian received a death sentence with a two-year reprieve, lifelong deprivation of political rights, and confiscation of all personal property. Additionally, he was sentenced to five years in prison for abuse of power.

Regarding using undisclosed information for trading, Tian was handed a seven-year prison term and fined 300 million yuan ($42 million). Furthermore, for insider trading and leaking insider information, he was sentenced to three years in prison and fined 8.5 million yuan.

https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202402/05/WS65c0e330a3104efcbdae9cdc.html

Is there any Western country that may confiscate all personal property as criminal punishment? When I think of countries who may impose such harsh punishment against white collar crimes, I think of non-democratic non-Western countries like Russia, North Korea and China, but I was wondering if there are Western countries that may confiscate all personal assets against white-collar criminals. I am thinking there might be some Eastern European countries that may have similar judicial systems and could thus impose such a harsh punishment (no death penalty, just seizure of assets).

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    Note that, while serving as bank president, Mr. Tian also served as the bank's "party secretary", which was a political appointment by the CCP - a party known for its strict/rigid rules against corruption by politically appointed officials.
    – r13
    Feb 6 at 2:58
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    I don't see a confiscation of all personal property in your quote. They gave out a fine that is proportionate to the amount of illegally obtained gains and that fine may very well be bigger than his total personal wealth. The same principle is applied in Western democracies, the actual personal wealth is not considered for the fine.
    – quarague
    Feb 6 at 8:20
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    @quarague Second Paragraph: "For taking bribes, Tian received a death sentence with a two-year reprieve, lifelong deprivation of political rights, and confiscation of all personal property."
    – CGCampbell
    Feb 6 at 10:11
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    Does being ordered to pay damages of several billion euros when your wealth is orders of magnitude lower count? Or do you consider only explicit "confiscation of all personal property"?
    – jcaron
    Feb 6 at 15:19
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    Can someone elaborate on what "a death sentence with at two-year repreive" means in practice?
    – user30575
    Feb 7 at 18:20

10 Answers 10

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In 2023, there was a law in Israel, that a foreign worker who remains in Israel 6 months after his/her visa expires, may lose all his/her pension savings. This is of course not the same as confiscating all property, but similar in spirit. The law was canceled by the Israeli Supreme Court, claiming that it is disproportionate and negates the right to property (Hebrew article).

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Criminal punishments may be fines, suspended prison sentences, or prison sentences. Unlike misdemeanor fines e.g. for traffic offenses, a criminal fine consists of two decisions by the court:

  • The number of "day equivalents" (Tagessätze) which are supposed to be proportional to the criminal responsibility of the perpetrator.
  • The amount per "day equivalent" which is supposed to be proportional to the disposable income of the perpetrator.

The fine to be paid is calculated as number times amount. And if the convict does not pay, he or she goes to prison for a number of days equal to the "day equivalents."

In theory, this sounds fair. Rich people pay more, poor people pay less, both are equally chastised. Neither one should be economically wiped out, because the amount is proportional to their wealth.

In practice, there are many very poor people who go to prison for a few days or a few weeks because they did not pay their fine. That's because the fine is determined on income, not wealth, and many poor households have effectively zero reserves. Also, courts tend to assume €5/day for people on welfare, which may be too high in many cases, yet the defendants do not argue effectively that the amount should be lower -- probably because they do not understand the proceedings well enough to do so effectively. When a rich person faces 60 "day-equivalents" times €250, it pays to hire a lawyer to argue for €150 instead. If a poor person faces 60 "day equivalents" times €5, they won't hire a lawyer to argue it should be €3 instead!

Assuming that sane people do not go to prison over a few Euros per day, that would be evidence that the fine exceeds their disposable wealth.

There is no way for a court to pass a sentence which reads "the fine is everything." But a court might well set a fine which exceeds the net worth of the individual.


There is also the option to confiscate "criminal gains" (Vermögensabschöpfung), but that is not really a punishment as such.

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    While this is correct, and at least somewhat helpful, I think the core question of OP is whether western countries can actually "confiscate all personal property", irrespective of how much that may be (in terms of money). This answer basically says that depending on how the maths work out, the fine (in money) could be so high that it bankrupts the perpetrator, but this does not seem to be the same (same end result, different "spirit").
    – AnoE
    Feb 6 at 10:40
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    Yeah, it is easy for a poor person to lose everything in all jurisdictions, but this is besides the point and works just as well for a fixed 100$ fine. White collar crime is mostly associated with at least somewhat rich folks (mid or upper class) - so your example doesn't really show that say a corrupt politician would lose house, yacht, fancy car and whatnot. ((obviously ignoring the fact it officially belongs to someone else ...)) Feb 6 at 11:54
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    Personal property includes non-disposable wealth. In a contrived example, someone may rather go to jail than to sell their sole valuable property that has been in the family for 200 years, if they own nothing else.
    – gerrit
    Feb 6 at 14:29
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    Germany used to have § 43a StGB which allowed for a penalty of up to the estimated wealth of the perpetrator, but it was declared unconstitutional in 2002.
    – Pahlavan
    Feb 6 at 14:37
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    @Pahlavan, good point, I added a sentence on the Vermögensabschöpfung which followed this.
    – o.m.
    Feb 6 at 15:55
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There is a somewhat related concept in some countries, such as the US, of civil forfeiture Canada does it as well.

In the United States, civil forfeiture (also called civil asset forfeiture or civil judicial forfeiture)1 is a process in which law enforcement officers take assets from people who are suspected of involvement with crime or illegal activity without necessarily charging the owners with wrongdoing. While civil procedure, as opposed to criminal procedure, generally involves a dispute between two private citizens, civil forfeiture involves a dispute between law enforcement and property such as a pile of cash or a house or a boat, such that the thing is suspected of being involved in a crime. To get back the seized property, owners must prove it was not involved in criminal activity.

While it wouldn't run into the strip-all-assets-forever mentality displayed in the question, civil forfeiture does get criticized

Excessive punishment. Justice John Paul Stevens said in a single dissenting vote in 1996 that civil forfeiture of a house, in which marijuana had been illegally processed, was an example of an excessive fine, and a violation of the Eighth Amendment, although the majority of the court disagreed.

ACLU

Forfeiture was originally presented as a way to cripple large-scale criminal enterprises by diverting their resources. But today, aided by deeply flawed federal and state laws, many police departments use forfeiture to benefit their bottom lines, making seizures motivated by profit rather than crime-fighting. For people whose property has been seized through civil asset forfeiture, legally regaining such property is notoriously difficult and expensive, with costs sometimes exceeding the value of the property. With the total value of property seized increasing every year, calls for reform are growing louder, and CLRP is at the forefront of organizations seeking to rein in the practice.

Now, whether the situation is as dire as the ACLU says, I dunno.

Here's a Canada seizure from Hell's Angels

The Supreme Court of Canada says it will not hear an appeal from the Hells Angels over properties the province of British Columbia seized from the motorcycle gang in Kelowna, Nanaimo and Vancouver.

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    The other problem with civil forfeiture is that it's done by the police and doesn't require conviction -- it's not a criminal penalty.
    – Barmar
    Feb 6 at 16:26
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    @Barmar Conviction? Not even an indictment, charges, or an arrest!! Civil Asset Forfeiture (CAF)'s main problem is a lack of due process. They can seize the property without even detaining the owners. For more on CAF, I'd recommend reading the Institute for Justice's "Policing for Profit" whitepaper: ij.org/report/policing-for-profit-3 . Steve Lehto on YT also has dozens of podcasts discussing the issue and real cases. Feb 6 at 18:06
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    @MindwinRememberMonica John Oliver also did a nice piece for laymen on Last Week Tonight.
    – Barmar
    Feb 6 at 18:08
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    Before y'all go on overmuch about due process, it depends on the jurisdiction. The Hell's Angels case took 16 years to resolve in Canada. Plenty of oversight. Which is not to say the procedures can't be rife of abuses in other cases. And, possibility of due process or not, if the not-defendant doesn't have the legal resources to fight for their rights, you can have confiscation based on limited effort by the police. There are pros and cons to seizing "obvious" criminal proceeds, but, yes, society should definitely be on the lookout for abuses in this domain. Feb 6 at 18:59
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    It has long been recognized that if someone is convicted for embezzling $100,000 they would be required to forfeit $100,000 above and beyond any punishment imposed. If the person spent most of the money before they were caught, and only had $90,000 of total assets remaining, the court would confiscate anyything they had left that wasn't sheltered by bankruptcy procedings.
    – supercat
    Feb 7 at 16:42
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Ireland does not seize all the personal property of criminals but certainly those assets believed acquired through funds derived from criminal activities can be appropriated by the state and disposed of accordingly.

Originally enacted for gangland type figures, there is scope to apply the Proceeds of Crime Act 1996 to all criminals, be they white-, blue- or brown collar.

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    This is a common practice in all EU countries, based on directive 2014/42/EU and regulation 2018/1805.
    – ccprog
    Feb 6 at 13:55
  • @ccprog Maybe but it seems like a directive 18 years late . . .
    – Trunk
    Feb 7 at 1:12
  • In Germany I believe they can ask for your tax returns first. If you are suspected of drugs dealing, and they find a million euros in your bank account and you paid taxes on 20,000 euros a year in income then you have some explaining to do. Lotteries or legal game casinos will give you a receipt if you win large amounts of tax free money. Large game casinos Will actually have an employee of the inland revenue on their premises for that.
    – gnasher729
    Feb 7 at 10:53
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In Spain, personal assets can be confiscated by authorities to pay for a debt after exhausting all legal appeal procedures (this is especially true for fines and taxes).

The order in which assets are confiscated is:

  • Cash (either physical or in savings accounts)
  • Short-term credits and accounts receivable
  • Salaries with limitations (minimum wage is unconfiscatable and beyond that there are percentages of how much they can take based on the salary)
  • Real estate
  • Interests and incomes
  • Commercial or industrial establishments
  • Precious metals, jewerly and antiques
  • Movable or livestock property
  • Long-term credits and accounts receivable

There are unconfiscatable goods:

  • Essential furniture for the use of the personal home (like your bed or your refrigerator)
  • Instruments and tools needed for your job (like your laptop if you use one for work)
  • The previously stated minimum unconfiscatable wage
  • Unemployment helps up until the minimum wage
  • Disability and retirement pensions if they are above minimum wage
  • Needed vehicles for disabled people.

This is exercised very often in practice, generally with the government seizing money from bank accounts to pay fines and taxes.

Therefore, in Spain you could end up with your personal assets confiscated if you are convicted with a fine or civil liability and unable to pay it in time.

Sources:

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In the UK, under the proceeds of crime act (good summary) this might be possible. The court would have to be convinced that the person had a "criminal lifestyle" and that he owned nothing which had not been paid for out of the proceeds of crime. More commonly, only assets which can reasonably be assessed as having beeen acquired with the proceeds of a crime for which he has been convicted would be seized. He would retain assets acquired prior to the commencement of his crime.

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In many western countries, being declared bankrupt is essentially the same as forfeiting your total assets. This is because you are unable to repay your debts, BUT it is not uncommon for people to be placed in such a position by legal penalties. In NZ (and no doubt in many other countries) the Inland Revenue service can levy 'fines' well in excess of usual interest rates for actions deemed illegal under law, leading to bankruptcy.

In the US individuals to be bankrupted by court actions which impose financial penalties beyond the defendents ability to pay.

New Zealand
From here

  • Bankruptcy is a way of dealing with debts that you cannot pay. It clears most of your debts (meaning you no longer have to pay them).

  • But, the Official Assignee will take control of everything you own and will sell most of it (subject to some limitations) to pay back the people or organisations you owe money to (your “creditors”). You’ll also be subject to a number of restrictions, some which can last for many years.

USA
From here

  • Depending on which type of bankruptcy you qualify for, your income, the equity in your assets and other factors, you may lose your home, your car and other valuable items. Your trustee may be required to sell these items to repay your creditors.

While the question was re criminal penalties, it's worth noting that civil penalties imposed by a court can easily achieve the same result. The boundary between the two is sometimes somewhat indistinct.
A recent high profile civil example is that of Rudy Giuliani

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  • Bankruptcy normally exempts certain possessions so that the person made bankrupt is not made utterly destitute. It's not in the public interest for them to be put in a position where they are unable to work and therefore have to be supported on benefits, or for children to be taken into care. I have no idea whether bankruptcy takes into consideration that the person being made bankrupt will be in jail for a considerable time.
    – nigel222
    Feb 7 at 11:39
  • Also the sad, sad, case of our beloved Alex Jones 😢😢😢 where they were very aggressive in seeking his $$$. Feb 7 at 18:09
  • In many jurisdictions, one's primary residence is protected from being taken in bankruptcy via a homestead exemption.
    – barbecue
    Feb 8 at 16:45
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Generally, no. There are many measure which end up doing that, but it would be difficult to name a measure which does specifically that.

Here's some examples:

  • Finland is the only country which I know which has punishments (such as traffic tickets) proportionate to income;
  • Most land taxes are proportionate to the value of land and the property occupying the land;
  • Jury trials are known for their inherent unpredictability when assigning damages for injuries. Those can easily exceed a wealthy person's or even an average-size company's assets. Some large conglomerates have gone bankrupt as results of legal damages (Texaco? PanAm?).

But assigning a punishment which depends on the income or assets of the culpable party is pretty rare. It goes against the spirit of equal treatment under the law. If a wealthy person is asked to pay a fine of $100M and a poor person is asked to pay a fine of $100 for the same wrongdoing, that would be seen as unfair and disproportionate by the legal system.

In general, the legal system tries to make the property penalties (fines, damages in law suits, etc.) proportionate to the amount of the harm done rather than proportionate to the amount that a defendant can afford.

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    This seems a little opinionated. As witnessed by @o.m.'s answer, it is absolutely not unusual for punishment being proportional to income. And it would absolutely be fair to charge a rich person more than a poor person. The value of money is relative - to a poor person, $100 might be the difference between eating or not eating for a week. For a rich person, they might spend $1 Mio without thinking twice. Charging both the same sum (say $100) for some crime would mean that it is a life-changing event for the poor person, and negligible for the rich one.
    – AnoE
    Feb 6 at 10:39
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    Several countries have fines proportional to income: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Day-fine
    – jkej
    Feb 6 at 10:58
  • Norway does the same as Finland wrt tickets cnrlawyers.com/news/high-speeding-ticket-fines . Considering all the other examples given, there is not much worth keeping with this answer. Feb 6 at 16:33
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica yeah, someone said Germany does, too. There are other answers which cover the details of it. This answer was the 1st one and it sort of paved the way for this question to be taken seriously. Before this answer the question was downvoted and remained without any activity for a while. I am sure I am missing many details, which other answers have already filled in or will fill in. I am ok with this answer remaining as a general overview... an abstract if you will.
    – wrod
    Feb 6 at 18:12
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ex-USSR legal systems

USSR criminal code had "confiscation of property" as an extra punishment option for many severe felonies, which was often applied in addition to jail time. It could apply both to specific property, e.g. things obtained as proceeds from criminal activity, and also to all property, with the exception of specified minimum (e.g. certain quantity of clothing, furniture, tools, utensils, etc) as a punitive measure, for example, for crimes related to corruption, theft of state property, treason, organized crime, etc.

As far as I look, certain aspects of these measures seem to be preserved (albeit often in a narrower sense, moving away from the 'total confiscation' towards specific proceeds of specific crimes) in criminal law of the countries inheriting that system - e.g. I see this as an option in my local Latvian criminal code, I see this in Russian criminal code (although with significant changes in 2003), and I assume this is likely to be the case for other countries as well, but I can't verify easily due to language barriers.

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  • Russia is not generally considered a Western country. In fact, it regularly contrasts itself from "the West," which is a term referring to liberal democracies. It's not about geography. It's about the way they are governed.
    – wrod
    Feb 9 at 17:18
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All of them. It has just a different name.

Normally, if anyone is convicted in a criminal offense, the verdict also discribes to monetarily pay the caused damage to property. If it does not, still a civil process can be started with the likely same result.

If the convict does not pay, there will be a judicial verdict which might be executed by force, i.e. legal executor visits the convict and gets what they want, freeze bank accounts, take over real estate in a forced auction and so on.

Thus, the process is complex and yes, the legal limits what can not be taken away from a convict by force, are typically very little.

There are various loopbacks to escape this, most of them focuses to make the property not owned by the convict legally, but still in practice.

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