Police Can Seize Personal Belongings Without a Conviction; Here’s What You Can Do About It
It may sound like a gross abuse of authority, but police can lawfully seize, keep and even liquidate your assets in most U.S states without ever convicting you of a crime or even charging you with one (which is the case 80% of the time). It is called civil forfeiture, and it’s important to understand your rights as well as what you can do about it if you’re affected.
Where Your Stuff Can and Cannot be Freely Seized
According to New York-headquartered law firm Faruqi & Faruqi, police in 39 states and the District of Columbia have the right to seize assets, including cash and cell phones, without a conviction ever being made. All they need is probable cause that the assets were involved in, or were the proceeds from, criminal activity.
If that is not intimidating enough, the police are actually incentivized to do so because they can recoup up to 80% of the value of those assets through the Equitable Sharing Program. Civil forfeitures have skyrocketed since the 1980s, topping $5 billion in 2014 and surpassing the value of burglaries for the first time. In fact, the police took more property from citizens than criminals.
Many local law enforcement agencies are heavily reliant on the program to fund their operations, demonstrating the clear danger and conflict of interest that exists and the potential for corruption and racial profiling.
The bipartisan FAIR Act bill, which would significantly squash the financial incentive for law enforcement to seize property, was recently reintroduced. Until that bill is passed, if ever, California, Nevada, New Hampshire, Montana, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, New Mexico, Oregon, Nebraska, and Vermont are the only states where a conviction is required to keep your assets.
How to Contest a Civil Forfeiture Case
If police seize some of your property, make sure that you receive documentation from the officer(s) involved that includes their name(s), a list of the items that were seized, and a police inventory number.
Faruqi & Faruqi, which handles a wide range of civil litigation cases on a national level, says forfeiture case disputes rarely end up before a criminal court judge. Instead, they are tried in a civil proceeding where the deck can be stacked against the victim.
Rather than being seen as innocent until proven guilty, victims are usually required to prove their innocence in what can only be described as a perverted corruption of the justice system. Furthermore, they have no right to an attorney, forcing many poorer victims (who the police often prey on) to defend themselves and navigate the convoluted civil court system alone. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, most forfeiture cases are never challenged, which is why the practice is so lucrative for police.
The aforementioned FAIR Act bill also takes aim at these civil proceedings, pushing for the adoption of legal counsel for those in need, as well as putting the burden of proof where it belongs: on the government agency that is claiming wrongdoing.
Faruqi & Faruqi says that for now, civil forfeitures remain an unjust exercise of power by law enforcement.