Guest Post: Illicit Enrichment Laws and the Presumption of Innocence

GAB is pleased to welcome this guest post by Andrew Dornbierer of the Basel Institute on Governance, author of the recently released open-access book Illicit Enrichment: A Guide to Laws Targeting Unexplained Wealth.

Laws targeting illicit enrichment are increasingly prevalent. To date, at least 98 jurisdictions have some form of illicit enrichment law. While the design and scope of these laws vary—some are criminal laws that can be used to convict individuals who control assets disproportionate to their lawful income, while others are civil laws that allow governments to seize assets whose lawful origins cannot be adequately explained—the common characteristic of all illicit enrichment laws is that they do not require prosecutors to secure a conviction for the underlying criminal conduct that allegedly produced the illicit wealth. Rather, illicit enrichment laws only require that the government show that the person enjoyed an amount of wealth that cannot be explained by reference to their lawful sources of income.

This characteristic serves as the primary point of attack for many critics. They claim that by not requiring a state to prove criminal activity, illicit enrichment laws effectively reverse the burden of proof, requiring the targets of the enforcement action to prove their innocence. And some countries have resisted adopting illicit enrichment laws for this very reason. While the UN Convention Against Corruption includes a specific article recommending that state parties consider adopting illicit enrichment laws, during negotiations “many [national] delegations indicated that they faced serious difficulties, often of a constitutional nature, with the inclusion of the concept of the reversal of the burden of proof.” Similar concerns were raised during the drafting of the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption (IACAC), and while in the end this convention did include a provision calling on states parties to adopt illicit enrichment laws, the United States filed a particularly clear reservation to this provision when it joined, noting that because “[t]he offense of illicit enrichment … places the burden of proof on the defendant,” such an offense “is inconsistent with the United States Constitution and fundamental principles of the United States legal system.” And in Ukraine, in February 2019 the Constitutional Court of Ukraine invalidated the local illicit enrichment law on the basis that it was inconsistent with the presumption of innocence.

Is there any truth to the claim that illicit enrichment laws unfairly place a burden of proof on the defendant, and thus violate the presumption of innocence?

The short answer is no.

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G7 Hypocrisy on Illicit Enrichment Crimes

Last month, I saw a news report about the international reaction to the Ukrainian Constitutional Court’s decision striking down Ukraine’s criminal offense of “illicit enrichment” as unconstitutional. For those unfamiliar with this topic, the crime of “illicit enrichment” makes it a criminal offense for a public official to realize a significant increase in his or her assets that the public official cannot reasonably explain. The crime of illicit enrichment is related to, but distinct from, civil asset forfeiture systems under which the government may seize—as presumptively the proceeds of unlawful activity—assets that the owner cannot reasonably explain. The main difference is that a civil forfeiture order results in the loss of assets, while a criminal offense can result in fines or incarceration, as well as the other collateral consequences of a criminal conviction. Some anticorruption activists support the criminalization of illicit enrichment on the grounds that it is often difficult or impossible to prove the underlying corruption offenses, but a substantial unexplained increase in a public official’s wealth is sufficient to prove that the official is corrupt. Critics warn that criminalizing illicit enrichment is incompatible with traditional notions of the presumption of innocence. (The UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), perhaps unsurprisingly, fudges the issue, with UNCAC Article 20 calling on States Parties to “consider” adopting an illicit enrichment offense, “[s]ubject to [that country’s] constitution and the fundamental principles of its legal system.”)

In its decision last February 26, Ukraine’s Constitutional Court went with the critics, holding that the criminalization of illicit enrichment a criminal offense was an unconstitutional infringement on the presumption of innocence. This decision met with swift condemnation from the G7, which issued a joint statement with the World Bank declaring that the “recent elimination of the illicit enrichment offence from [Ukraine’s] criminal code is a serious setback in the fight against corruption” that has “weakened the impact of the whole anti-corruption architecture.” Illicit enrichment, the G7 and World Bank admonished, “is not a new offence. In 2010 there were more than 40 countries that criminalized illicit enrichment,” and “[c]ourts around the world have recognized that the criminalization of illicit enrichment is a powerful tool in the fight against corruption, while at the same time respecting fundamental human rights and constitutional principles such as [the] presumption of innocence[.]” The G7-World Bank joint statement closed by calling on Ukrainian authorities to “reinstat[e] criminal liability for illicit enrichment in line with UN, OECD, and [European Court of Human Rights] principles.”

Now, as a policy matter, I tend to agree with the G7-World Bank position here. I think that appropriately tailored and cabined illicit enrichment offenses can be useful tools, and (as others have also pointed out), it’s not true that such offenses have any inherent conflict with the presumption of innocence. Nonetheless, I found the letter an exercise in outrageous, condescending hypocrisy, one that the G7 countries in particular should be ashamed to have written. Continue reading