What Is Civil Forfeiture? Is It Legal?

By Brett Snider, Esq. on October 06, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Civil forfeiture is a strange legal concept, allowing law enforcement to seize large amounts of money and even homes from persons who haven't even been charged with a crime.

Comedian John Oliver recently took on the topic of civil forfeiture on his HBO show "Last Week Tonight," revealing many of the shady police practices and procedural gaps that make the asset-seizure process seem so wrong.

But what is civil forfeiture, and is it even legal?

Legally Seizing Property

Under the rules of civil forfeiture, police can often seize personal and real property (read: real estate) when they believe it may be part of criminal activity. As Oliver explained in his vignette on the subject, police do not need to charge the owner with a crime to seize the property, and the burden is on the owner to prove that the seized property was not used for criminal activity.

You can watch Oliver's segment here (warning: some explicit language):

The practice of civil forfeiture has been under fire in places like Nevada, where law enforcement agencies have been sued over highway stops in which large amounts of cash were seized. Officers are trained to look for big stacks of currency as an indicator of drug activity, but as we all are aware, sometimes innocent people carry large amounts of cash.

Even if the property owners are never charged or arrested, the property itself is guilty until proven innocent, and law enforcement often does keep what cannot be returned.

Getting Your Seized Property Back

That being said, it isn't impossible for innocent owners to get their stuff back. It just requires suing the department that took your stuff. It may sound daunting to most people who lack legal knowledge or even the funds to pursue such a lawsuit, but it's often the only way to get seized property back.

In one notable case, a former stripper had to go to federal court to get more than $1 million in cash returned to her after state troopers seized it. The government ended up paying her back the money -- with interest. A Washington state man was even successful in getting police to give him back his pot after they seized it in 2012.

Depending on which law enforcement agency seized your property, you may have to follow a unique procedure to get it back. Luckily, an experienced criminal defense attorney should be able to help.

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