Everyone knows that the police have the power to seize individuals’ personal property that reasonably appears to be evidence of a crime. It may surprise you to know that police departments across the country, including here in Columbus, often keep the valuables they take — even if the owner is never convicted of a crime.
This practice is called civil asset forfeiture, and for many police departments and sheriff’s offices, it makes up a significant part of their budgets. Here’s how it works: say a police officer has arrested you on suspicion of drug trafficking. If the officer believes you bought your pickup truck with proceeds from drug sales, or it was otherwise connected with a crime, they can order your truck towed and taken into police possession.
Later, the prosecutor drops the charges against you. But though you are free, getting your truck back can be very difficult, and require the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney working relentlessly to get your property back.
A real-life example of civil asset forfeiture
Something very similar to this happened to an Arizona man last year. He was doing his job as a handyman when his girlfriend offered to drive his Jeep to the store to buy him a drink. Before she could return, the woman was arrested by police, who claimed she sold $25 worth of marijuana to an undercover officer. The police also seized the man’s Jeep, which he says was worth $15,000.
Later, the charges against the man’s girlfriend were dropped. But the police refused to return the Jeep to the man unless he paid a “mitigation of forfeiture” fee of $1,900. Remember, the man who owned the Jeep was not arrested or charged with anything.
Recent changes to state and federal law
Ohio is one of the more restrictive states when it comes to civil asset forfeiture powers. A 2017 law states that police departments may not keep seized property worth less than $15,000 unless the owner is convicted of a crime. The new law also shifts the burden of proof onto the government and requires the government to prove that the property was connected to a crime by “clear and convincing evidence,” the highest possible standard.
Two years after those changes to Ohio law went into effect, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment, which bars “excessive fines,” applies to the federal government’s civil asset forfeiture powers. The Court also determined that this rule applies to state governments and their law enforcement agencies.
While the Court did not do away with civil asset forfeiture, its ruling means that, essentially, the seizure has to fit the crime. In the case of the Arizona man, taking away a $15,000 vehicle over an alleged $25 drug sale would seem by many to be excessive.
You don’t have to give up your valuables
The red tape and civil court procedures of getting your property returned to you after a civil asset forfeiture can take a long time. Your best chance of a successful outcome is to work with a defense attorney who knows the system and will never stop fighting for your property rights.