Civil Forfeiture Laws Skirt Constitutional Protections

Normally we think that only people can be charged with crimes. That is generally true, but there is an odd wrinkle in the law that actually allows inanimate property to be charged with being involved in crimes. The law allows law enforcement to seize property that is involved in the potential commission of a crime, and that seizure does not have to abide by many constitutional measures.

What is Civil Forfeiture?

Initially used to fight the drug wars of the 80s, civil forfeiture laws allow law enforcement to seize property that is suspected of being involved in a crime, even if the owner of the property is not charged or convicted of a crime.

Say, for example, police search your bag and find wads of cash neatly rolled up. They suspect that cash may be involved in or related to a crime. So long as the initial search of your bag was lawful, and complied with the constitution, the police can seize and potentially keep that cash.

Automobiles often are subject to forfeiture. Often, individuals will have cars stolen, and the perpetrator will use the vehicle to commit a crime. That vehicle is now evidence that can be retained by the police. If the vehicle was not stolen, but belonged to the perpetrator, the perpetrator now can lawfully have his vehicle seized by officers even though he is still presumed innocent.

Making matters worse, someone whose property is subject to forfeiture is not automatically entitled to an attorney, and prosecutors do not have to prove the property was involved in the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

Critics Claim Profit Motives

Property that law enforcement obtains is often sold, but the proceeds do not go to the owners of the property. Rather, those proceeds go to law enforcement agencies and are often used to fund vital law enforcement tools. Many agencies say they would not be able to function without funds derived from forfeitures.

But critics say the system is set up to allow police agencies to take whatever property they want and create an endless cash flow without having to prove much in a court of law. They say this creates incentives for police to take property while providing as little due process as possible.

Maryland has Tougher Forfeiture Laws

Maryland recently passed legislation making it harder for law enforcement to seize and sell property by forfeiture. The new law requires a “clear and convincing” proof standard for the state to seize property. Additionally, to seize someone’s home, the law requires that the state actually obtain a criminal conviction against the alleged perpetrator. Police also can not seize cash for simple drug possession cases, but they can still do so for drug trafficking cases.

The law also restricts agencies from funneling cash obtained by forfeiture to federal agencies, where the forfeiture laws are much more relaxed.

Make sure that your property is protected if you are arrested or charged with a crime and that you understand what law enforcement can and cannot do. Contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss your case if you are charged with a crime or arrested in Maryland.