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Can police keep cash they find in a car stopped for a mere traffic infraction?


Unfortunately, yes the police can keep the cash and they do, every day. The law enforcement practice is known as civil asset forfeiture, in which the police seize cash or goods from a person suspected of a crime, even if no charges are ever brought against that person. Since 2001, police have seized a staggering $2.5 billion in cash from people who were never charged with a crime. As a Jacksonville criminal defense attorney, I represent people fighting civil asset forfeitures.

Under civil asset forfeiture laws, the burden of proof is on the owner of the assets to show that they are not related to a crime by the legal standard known as a preponderance of the evidence. In essence, you must prove your own innocence. Why do the police do this? Because it is a significant source of revenue for them nationwide.

Imagine you're driving down the highway on your way to buy a car. Suddenly, police pull you over for allegedly going 37 mph in a 35 mph zone. Upon discovering the $8,500. in cash you have on hand, the officers take you to jail and threaten to charge you with money laundering unless you turn over the money. Frightened, you give it to them. Am I making this up? Actually, it's a true story - it happened to a man named Roderick Daniels. He eventually got his money back, but only after intense legal pressure from a good lawyer and media attention.

Many of the abuses occur at the state and local levels, because the federal government encourages them through "equitable sharing partnerships", a practice that allows police agencies to circumvent state laws that might otherwise tie their hands. Under the program, a local police agency need only call up the Drug Enforcement Agency, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, or so other federal agency that then "federalizes" the investigation, making it subject to the laxer federal guidelines for forfeiture. Civil forfeiture is big business for the government. There is even a private for-profit firm named Desert Snow, which trains officers to detect suspicious behavior in people they've stopped in order to justify searches (such notable things as being nervous and having litter in the vehicle). The organization teaches officers how to casually ask drivers to allow for searches after the stop is officially over and the driver has been cited (or not) for unrelated violations.

In response legislation has been introduced by Senator Rand Paul to curb the abuses of these laws - including removing the profit motive incentive. But the law enforcement lobby is pushing hard to keep things the way they are. Currently, the federal government takes it's cut of the money and then returns as much as 80% back to the local agency. It's no more than a legal shakedown.

Lesson Learned:

The practice of police seizing money from drivers without any proof of illegal activity is a national outrage. Only one sixth of asset forfeitures are ever challenged, but when they are, the police end up agreeing to return the money 41% of the time. Even with the low "preponderance of the evidence" standard, often, when challenged, the police are unable to justify the car stops and seizures they made. What does this mean? If this happens to you, hire a lawyer to challenge the taking of your money by the police. You have a good chance of getting your money back.

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