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There’s nothing more nerve-wracking than being pulled over by a police car, or answering the door to find the police on your front porch. Even if you’ve done nothing wrong and have never broken a law in your life, interactions with suspicious law enforcement officers are incredibly stressful. You’re supposedly innocent until proven guilty, but in these situations, the cops don’t always act like it.

But that stressful situation can become a real nightmare if the police seize your property. Whether it’s cash you’re bringing to the bank, your car, or other valuables you thought were safe on your person, it’s not uncommon for the police to seize your property during an encounter—even if you’re not ultiamtely charged with a crime. Worse, the cops can often legally keep your property and cash, again, even if you’re never charged with any crime, or are later found to be not guilty.

Civil asset forfeiture

In most of these encounters, the police rely on something called civil asset forfeiture. Initially designed as a tool to deprive drug dealers and organized crime figures of their ill-gotten gains, these laws empower the police to seize cash and property if they suspect it’s involved in a criminal enterprise—but because this is a civil action and not a criminal one, the burden of proof is much lower. In a weird twist of the law, it’s the property itself that is the subject of a lawsuit from the government—not a criminal charge against you. That’s how you can go free without being charged, but your property remains seized.

This is big business for many police departments—the Institute for Justice estimates that close to $70 billion has been seized by police in the last few decades. Laws governing civil asset forfeiture vary wildly across the country, but even when states have laws on the books that require convictions or limit seizures to values over a certain threshold, they often have too many loopholes to be truly effective. For example, New Jersey technically requires a criminal conviction for police to keep assets valued at or below $10,000, or less than $1,000 in cash. But this leaves innocent people stuck with having to prove their innocence in court as opposed to the state having to prove their guilt—and the police still have a huge incentive to seize property, because they can keep 100% of it if they secure a conviction.

Local police can also evade state laws in many cases by using a program called “Equitable Sharing,” which transfers the jurisdiction of the seizure to the federal government. This often causes delays for people trying to get their money back, as they have to figure out where to sue—delays that sometimes mean they miss legal filing deadlines. After a period of time, the federal government will return as much as 80% of the money to the local police department.

There are plenty of nightmare stories of people who had cash or property seized by police and spent years trying to get it back—and even when they win, they usually don’t get it back with interest, or their legal fees covered, despite being completely innocent of any crime. This is because federal law requires individuals to “substantially prevail” in court—i.e., win their lawsuit—to get legal fees covered. If it looks like you might actually win your case, the local government will often return the initially seized property in order to avoid that, leaving you with no interest and lots of legal bills for your troubles.

The Supreme Court is currently deliberating a case that could change how civil forfeiture works in the U.S., but hasn’t yet rendered a decision. Until it does, the practice goes on.

What to do if police seize your property

So you were pulled over, or the police executed a warrant at your residence, and your cash or valuables were seized. You were not charged with a crime, but your property wasn’t immediately returned. What can you do? Be prepared for a long fight, because until the Supreme Court (maybe) takes action, the odds remain stacked against you.

But here’s what you need to do:

  • Take notes. Record as much information as you can at the moment of seizure. Take photos and video. Make a note of the names of the officers involved, along with badge numbers and the precise time that everything happens. Also ask the officers what their justification for the seizure is—they don’t need much, and just about everything you do can be considered a sign of illegal activity, including having a large amount of cash on you in the first place.

  • Get a receipt. No matter the circumstances behind the seizure, the police are obligated to provide you with a receipt that details the property and money seized from you. Make sure you get one before you part ways, and check that it’s accurate.

  • Don’t sign a waiver. The police often encourage or pressure you to “disavow” cash or other property by signing a waiver that states it isn’t yours and you don’t know anything about it, which eliminates your claim to it. Often people are presented with the choice between spending hours being searched and questioned, or signing a waiver and being released immediately. Don’t do it—signing a waiver like that might set you free in the short term, but it will complicate your efforts to get your property back later.

  • Act immediately. Once you’ve been released, don’t waste time. Contact the local county courthouse to find out how you can petition for the return of your property, and to determine who has jurisdiction over the seizure. You might consider seeking legal advice, but keep in mind that paying for a lawyer might mean getting your money back is a Pyrrhic victory at best.

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