Under federal law, civil judicial forfeiture is a procedure in which police are allowed to seize property assets to fund their department, so long as the seized property is suspected of being used in the commission of a crime. Unlike criminal forfeiture, which is a dispute between law enforcement and the defendant, civil forfeiture is a dispute between law enforcement and property. Under federal law, “the property is the defendant and no criminal charge is necessary”. While the notion of property defending itself might sound ridiculous, in some instances this practice can be used for the public good, such as seizing a crack house because it poses a threat to the community. In such a case, the premises are associated with criminal activity, but perhaps no single individual can be held accountable for the illicit activity there, so the entire property is seized. However problems arise when police abuse this authority, especially when they have financial incentive to do so.
Since the property seized by police goes to fund their department, the opportunity for abuse of authority runs rampant. Under the law, all the state must do is allege an indictable offense. When property is seized, the burden of proof falls on the defendant to give evidence that the contested property was not involved in a crime, and unlike criminal cases defendants are not guaranteed a lawyer if they are unable to afford one. In these instances due process is undeniably violated, leaving normal people assumed guilty until proven innocent. In 2013, Mercer County alone brought in nearly half a million dollars from the sale of seized property. Under the law these assets cannot be used to pay salaries, but the motive of policing for profit poses a significant temptation for departments looking to pad their budget.
Victims of these abuses often have long legal struggles to get their money back, if they ever get it back at all. In one particularly egregious case, a New Jersey man stopped in Tennessee for a routine traffic stop was robbed of $22,000 because the money was suspected to be involved with drugs, when in reality the money was being used to buy a car. Since there was no way to prove legal intent, the money was assumed illegal and confiscated.
If you ever have your property confiscated by the police, don’t let civil forfeiture trample your right to property and due process. Individuals suspected of a crime or subject to civil forfeiture need an attorney with an understanding of these laws and experience in recovering illegally seized property. Contact Rosenberg | Perry & Associates Burlington County attorneys today to discuss your civil forfeiture matters.