What You Need to Know about Civil Forfeiture

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Civil Forfeiture – Your Money Is Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Police can take your cash, cars, and other assets through civil forfeiture even if you are not charged with any crime.

A recent article in the Washington Post brought national attention to the practice of civil forfeiture. Civil forfeiture is a police practice by which they can take possession of any civil assets that they suspect have been involved with a crime. This can be large sums of drug money, cars used to transport weapons and other contraband, and even homes where drugs are stored or sold. However, while these actions could be proven criminal as part of a thorough investigation directly involving actual people carrying out actions, civil forfeiture requires no actual human to try in court. In civil forfeiture cases, the actual asset is on trial and is assumed guilty until someone can prove that the object in question was not used for criminal purposes.

This may sound crazy, but it is actually the way police take control of any asset that they deem suspicious. The object itself is on trial with very little required burden of proof. That means that the prosecutor must simply establish some evidence that the money is dirty. They do not have to prove that the person in possession of the cash was doing anything criminal. In fact, no actual human defendant is involved at all.

When is civil forfeiture used?

While originally these laws were used to combat the drug trade and mostly applied to contraband, civil forfeiture has more recently become a common practice in more regular situations. In fact, routine traffic stops have become a very common way that police now seize cash from average citizens not committing crimes. During traffic stops, police look for certain markers of suspicious, criminal activity, but these are very subjective. Tinted windows, air fresheners, trash in the car, energy drinks, signs of driver nervousness, and even driving the speed limit where others were speeding have all been cited as indicators of suspicious behavior and used to take and large sums of cash found in the car.

In these cases, law enforcement does not have to prove that you were breaking any law in order for the seizure to hold up in court. In fact, they don’t even have to prove that the traffic stop had probable cause, because the driver is not on trial. The asset itself is the suspect. This has lead to abuse. In fact, 80 percent of civil forfeitures are property of people never accused of any related crime, yet it is difficult to get that property back. As police departments confiscating the money can usually keep most of what they take, many police forces use the practice to get money to buy things not provided for in budgets, which leads to abuse.

How can I protect my assets from civil forfeiture?

Many police officers are now in the habit of routinely asking people if they have any large sums of cash in the car with them at traffic stops. If you are carrying a large sum of cash, even if you have a legitimate, easily-proven use for the money, answering “yes” will risk the loss of that money. While you should never directly lie to law enforcement, you have the right to refuse to answer questions by law enforcement without a lawyer so that you do not say anything potentially incriminating. This means that you can simply politely decline to answer any questions and reject consenting to any searches. Civil forfeiture of any asset is only possible if police can prove that it exists.

If your money or other valuable asset is easily visible or found during a search that was executed due to probable cause, you should make sure to get your legitimate reason for having the asset put in the report and on the record. While police are not obligated to believe you, if your reasons are well-documented and presented upfront, you are more likely to keep your cash. Furthermore, by making it clear that you are willing to fight to keep an asset, you may be able to show police that it is not worth taking. Finally, if any asset is seized, make sure to get any relevant police reports and consult a lawyer. It is very difficult to get these goods back, but it is possible to build an effective case with the help of expert lawyers. In the end, many people argue that the best way to protect your belongings from civil forfeiture is to support new legislation to change the way it happens in the first place.

Recently charged with an offense or had any assets seized by the police during a stop? It’s in your best interest to consult with an experienced Pittsburgh criminal defense lawyer who can help recover your assets and protect your rights. Call (412) 281-2146 for a free consultation, 24/7.