You may have heard of civil asset forfeiture before. It is the police practice of seizing someone’s personal property if officers believe it was connected to a crime. Usually, the owner must be arrested first.
For example, if you are arrested on suspicion of drug trafficking, the police might also take your car, claiming that you bought it with proceeds from drug sales. Getting your property back later can be difficult, and the department that took it often gets to keep it. Civil asset forfeiture is very controversial, because, for many American police departments and sheriff’s offices, the proceeds from these seizures of individuals’ private property make up a big part of their budgets.
Impact of a Supreme Court decision
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an important ruling on this issue. Voting 9-0, the Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s rule against “excessive fines” applies to the states. Getting back to our example above, let’s say that the police accuse you of selling $100 worth of drugs, but the car they seized from you is worth $20,000. That would arguably be an excessive fine for the crime with which you have been charged.
In 2017, Florida’s police departments seized more than $23 million in cash and assets. However, some departments were more aggressive than others. After the Supreme Court decision, the director of the Miami-Dade Police Department claimed that his officers already acted within the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act, and expected the ruling would not change how the department used civil asset forfeiture. “The punishment has to fit the crime,” the director said.
Legal help during and after your court case
Getting your things back can be a challenge, even if the charges against you were dropped or a jury found you not guilty. Your defense attorney should be able to work to get through the necessary paperwork to show that your property should be returned to you.