Some of the biggest myths about forfeituresLike many items related to the law, civil asset forfeiture is ripe with myths. Let’s take a look at a few of them:
- Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be convicted of a crime to lose your property at forfeiture. Law enforcement need only demonstrate “probable cause” – the lowest standard of proof – that the items were involved in a crime in order to seize your property, and then the burden shifts to the owner to try to get the property back.
- You don’t necessarily need to be guilty of a “major crime” for the police to seize your property. In Detroit, cops seized over a hundred cars owned by patrons of an art institute event—because the institute had failed to get a liquor license. Be careful who you loan your car to, or who you let stay in your house. If your guest uses it in the commission of a crime, even without your knowledge, the items are often subject to forfeiture.
- A very common myth is that innocent people can always get their property back. Being innocent does not mean that a law enforcement agency has to return your property. The Supreme Court of the United States has held that the “innocent owner” defense is not constitutionally required. While Arizona does have a “claim procedure” for innocent owners to attempt to reclaim what has been taken, the claimant has the burden of proof and must pay the expense of filing the claim. These expenses often outweigh the value of the item seized, and many potential claimants simply give up.
What happens to the money and property that is seized?Most people would assume that the money seized would go into the State general fund. That is not the case. Most law enforcement agencies are allowed to keep what they seize. Consider this:
- The Pinal County Sheriff’s Department spent nearly $110,000 in forfeited funds to upgrade its fitness center.
- The Counter Narcotics Alliance, a Tucson-area drug task force, reported spending $654,000 on "personal services" in 2009, with no further details listed.
- The Pima County Sheriff's Department, put more than $1 million in federal forfeiture funds toward two 1999 Cessna 206H airplanes in 2014.