The Police Took My Property. Can I Get it Back?

Using civil asset forfeiture laws, police agencies and prosecutor’s offices can take and dispose of private property. Forfeiture proceedings can be held at the state or federal level, and they occur most frequently during the course of investigations of illegal narcotics activity. In New York, most forfeitures proceed under CPLR Article 13-A and are handled by the local district attorney’s office. At the federal level, not surprisingly, most forfeitures are handled by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Unfortunately for property owners, the government has a relatively low burden to proceed in a civil forfeiture proceeding, and the owner must timely and affirmatively act to recover the property. Because of these aspects, many people consider modern civil asset forfeiture laws as some of the most serious assaults on private property rights. Using these laws, the government can seize an individual’s car, home, cash, and other property without ever charging or convicting him of a crime. Unlike criminal forfeiture in which property is confiscated by the government after the owner has been found guilty in a court of law, in civil forfeiture the property owner may never be charged or convicted of a crime and may still never regain his property.

Unfortunately for those who have had their property seized by the government, one of the basic rights of being an American citizen is denied – the right of innocent until proven guilty. When the government has seized your property due to civil forfeiture, it is not simply returned on the asking. Oftentimes, documentation must be submitted showing ownership, innocent knowledge, or extreme hardship. Additionally, because of weak laws regarding notice, it is not always immediately clear who is holding and seizing the property. Due to the effort and expertise involved in taking on state and/or federal authorities, the majority of Americans who have had their property seized by civil forfeiture will do nothing.

Civil forfeiture law was expanded immensely during the 1980’s war on drugs in this country. In 1986, two years after the federal Asset Forfeiture Fund was created, the fund took in almost $94 million in proceeds from forfeited assets. By 2008, the number of proceeds from forfeited assets grew to over $1 billion. The total net assets seized, according to the Department of Justice, in the fiscal year 2012 exceeded $4.2 billion.

Civil asset forfeitures are lining the pockets of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. The forfeiture laws allow up to eighty percent of confiscated assets to be converted into cash to fund the organizations that seized the property, and unfortunately, this type of system can lead to abuse.

One example of abuse is illustrated by some local law enforcement officials in Florida. Police in Sunrise, Florida, has conducted “reverse” sting operations in which they pose as drug dealers to lure buyers with promises of cheap drugs. The officers then, once the deals go down, bust the buyers and then using civil forfeiture laws, seize their cash and cars. Between 2010 and 2012, the Sun-Sentinel reports the Sunrise Police Department made over $5.8 million in forfeiture proceeds.

The original story can be found here and here.