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Fighting Back Against Civil-Forfeiture Abuse

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Law-enforcement agencies are charged with keeping the public safe from criminals. All too often, though, they use their powers to take advantage of the people they are supposed to protect. One clear example of this is civil-forfeiture abuse in which law-enforcement agents take money and property from individuals without proving those people were doing anything illegal. According to some statistics, the federal government reaped in over $5 billion in civil forfeitures in 2014, and forfeiture revenue doubled in 14 states by 2013. If you've had law enforcement unfairly seize money or property, here are three things you need to do to force the responsible agency to return your things.

File a Claim Immediately

Reclaiming assets seized through civil forfeiture is notoriously difficult, and one of the reasons why is that victims only have a limited amount of time to file a claim for them. Once the deadline passes, the asset becomes the permanent property of the government agency holding it, and the true owner can't do anything to reclaim the property.

The amount of time you have to file a claim varies depending on where you live and whether your property was taken by the state or the federal government. For instance, the federal government will notify property owners of its intent to keep the money or items within 60 days after taking it. You then must file a response within 30 to 35 days; otherwise you'll lose the asset by default. It's essential that you research the appropriate laws and carefully read any notices you receive from the agency and then file a claim for your property as soon as possible.

Choose a Defense

Civil-forfeiture laws are not user friendly for the average person because they are counter-intuitive to the way criminal law normally works. Instead of forcing the prosecutor to prove you are guilty of a crime, the law requires you to prove you are innocent of the accusations levied against you by the law-enforcement agency.

This can be done by invoking innocent-owner defense. Essentially, you need to show you didn't participate in or have knowledge of any illegal activity in connection to the property that was taken from you. For example, a woman who had $1 million confiscated by police during a traffic stop was able to use tax records and contracts to prove she earned the money legally. The police were ordered to return the cash to her and pay her $39,035 for attorney's fees.

Another option for getting your property back is to show the police violated your civil rights or stopped you without cause, thus rendering the asset seizure illegal. In one incident, a man had $50,000 taken from him when a cop stopped him for allegedly speeding. According to the victim, the police officer told him he wouldn't be released unless he forfeited the cash he had in a briefcase. The man sued, claiming the officer violated his Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful searches and seizures. The agency settled with the person for the full amount taken plus an additional $10,000 for attorney's fees.

Contact the Media as Soon as Possible

It's unfortunate but true that law-enforcement officers are able to get away with taking people's money and property because these incidents are kept quiet. Even if you have a good case against the agency who took your belongings, you may still lose due to unethical actions by the agency because of a lack of oversight and transparency into the process.

One way to avoid this type of outcome and put pressure on the agency to return your belongings is to bring the case into the public eye. Police generally don't like being scrutinized by the public. Having local news agencies cover your story and getting the issue trending on social-media channels will bring a lot of unwanted attention to the agency, and that may inspire it to do right by you to avoid a PR disaster.

For more information about fighting law enforcement to get your property back, contact a personal-injury attorney, such as one from Vaughan & Vaughan, who can help you with this issue.