There are many laws on the books designed to prevent criminals from profiting from their crimes. While these laws were developed with good intentions, some government agencies are exploiting the statutes to steal from innocent civilians. In recent months, law enforcement agencies have come under fire for abusing civil forfeiture laws to wrongfully seize millions of dollars in money and assets. If you're the victim of civil forfeiture abuse, here is what you can do to reclaim your money and property.
What is Civil Forfeiture Abuse?
Civil forfeiture occurs when the government (or one of its agents) seizes money and property from citizens. This legal maneuver is typically used to cripple drug traffickers by taking money found during searches and busts. However, it has been used to hinder other forms of crime including prostitution and theft as well as to punish convicted criminals.
Unfortunately, some law enforcement agencies have been using the law as a fundraising tool. People who have not been convicted of or charged with a crime have had their assets confiscated for dubiously legal reasons. For example, police seized $1 million from a woman during a traffic stop in 2012. The police took the cash because a K-9 unit indicated there were trace amounts of drugs on the bills, but that is true of the majority of currency in circulation in the United States.
The woman had proof that the money was acquired in legal ways, but the police refused to return the cash. Mind you, the woman was not charged with or convicted of a crime, but she had to file a lawsuit against the police department to get her money back. She was also awarded an additional $39,035 to cover her legal costs.
A Nationwide Problem
Civil forfeiture abuses are not just limited to state agencies. The federal government has also stretched the limits of its authority on numerous occasions. The latest example involves a business owner who deposited money into her company's bank account in small increments. The IRS seized all the money in her bank account because it believed she was trying to skirt reporting laws. Again, this citizen was never charged or convicted of a crime, but she still lost almost $33,000 to the tax organization.
Getting Your Property Back
It is unfortunate but true that the laws as they are currently written allow for this type of abuse. However, you can also use the law to fight back and reclaim your property. The best legal strategy for getting your property returned to you will depend on the circumstances of your case. For example, the Constitution protects against illegal searches and seizures. If you can prove the agency violated your rights, then the courts may rule in your favor and return your assets.
This was the outcome of a case involving the seizure of $28,000 from a California man by federal agents. The judge ruled that because the agents didn't Mirandize the man or have a search warrant or the man's permission to enter the home, the search they conducted was unlawful and the money was returned to the individual.
Proving the agency's allegations false is another way of winning back your assets. In the case of the woman who had $1 million seized, she was able to prove to the court's satisfaction that she had legally obtained the money and was using it for business reasons. The judge in the case found that the negligible amounts of drugs detected on the money was not reason enough to validate the law enforcement's agency's claim to the cash.
Outside of a courtroom, though, it can be difficult to reclaim your property from a government agency. Sometimes going to the media and bringing unwanted attention to the issue will prompt the agency to reverse course and return what it took. This is not always a slam dunk though. If you're the victim of civil forfeiture abuse, it's best to contact an attorney, such as a personal injury attorney, to help you get your money or property back.