You may have heard of auctions in which police departments sell vehicles, luxury goods and other items that they seized from criminal suspects. And you may have wondered how, exactly, the police got these items.
If you’re like a lot of people who have been arrested in Indiana, you don’t have to wonder. You know the answer all too well.
Civil asset forfeiture
The answer involves a process known as civil asset forfeiture.
Under Indiana law, police can seize property from criminal suspects if doing so is incident to a lawful investigation. For example, police may seize a weapon from a suspect if police believe the suspect used the weapon in a crime. The weapon is then kept as evidence for the prosecution.
In a case like the example above, the connection of the property to the alleged crime is very clear. In many cases, however, the connection is much looser. Police often seize cash, vehicles and other property if they suspect that it was in any way involved in the commission of crimes, and it is very hard for the original owner to recover the property even if they are not eventually convicted of the crime in question.
This practice is highly controversial. The activist Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights calls civil asset forfeiture “legalized theft.” Many organizations say the practice gives police departments a financial incentive to find any pretext in order to seize valuable assets for themselves. Studies show that the practice affects people of color well out of proportion to their percentage of the population.
Still, the practice is widespread in the United States.
Indiana Supreme Court case
Recently, the Indiana Supreme Court heard arguments in a case involving a man who was convicted on drug charges. During his arrest, police seized $2,435 that he had on hand and in his car. The man argues that this seizure violates his constitutional rights and that he is entitled to a trial before the police can take his property. A judge agreed, but the state attorney general appealed that decision, arguing that no such trial is needed.
In this case, police say the cash could be proceeds from a criminal drug operation, or instruments used for buying more drugs, and therefore should be treated as contraband. Critics point out that all of us have the right to carry cash, and therefore cash cannot be considered contraband.
You have rights
The legal issues involved in civil forfeiture are highly complex, and it can be very difficult to win a legal action against the police. Still, if you have been accused or even convicted of a crime, you have rights, but you may have to fight for them. Professionals can help you understand your rights and how to stand up for them.