Nationwide, a controversial but common police practice has received increasing media attention. Called civil asset forfeiture, it refers to the police power to seize a suspect’s private property if the police allege that it is involved in a crime. In many states, including Missouri, the vast majority of that cash, real estate and other valuables is never returned to its owner. Instead, federal and local law enforcement agencies keep it for themselves.
It does not matter if the person is ever found guilty or even charged with a crime. The burden is on them to ask for their own property to be returned to them. Naturally, this widespread police power is highly contentious, especially when you consider that in Missouri alone, the police used 493 civil asset forfeitures to seize $5.9 million from residents in 2019 alone. Of those 493 people whose property was seized, just 249 were ever charged with a crime.
While that $5.9 million may sound high, it is a 35 percent decrease from 2018, when officers took more than $9.1 million worth of property from criminal suspects. In 2017, Missouri police seized about $7 million.
The law versus what really happens
Officially, state law requires that property kept by the police using civil asset forfeiture go into public school budgets, and only after the property owner has been convicted or pleaded guilty to a crime like drug trafficking. In reality, local police departments usually turn over the money to the U.S. Department of Justice under that agency’s Equitable Sharing Program. After taking off 20 percent of the cash for itself, the Justice Department returns up to 80 percent of the proceeds to the local department, which uses the money virtually however it chooses – including officer salaries.
How to fight for your property
The burden is on the property owner to request their property be returned to them. Your defense attorney can help you with this, along with any charges and potential criminal penalties you might be facing.