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Civil Asset Forfeiture: The Police's Right to Confiscate Property

Posted on in Criminal Defense

police seizure, illegal seizure of property, Wisconsin criminal defense lawyerWhile there are a variety of legitimate reasons for police to seize property associated with criminal activities, these sorts of seizure laws are ripe for abuse if not properly supervised. A disturbing nationwide trend of police improperly seizing property under “civil asset forfeiture” laws has recently been garnering a large amount of media attention. These laws allow police to seize a person's property on suspicion that it was involved in criminal activity, and then force the people to engage in an expensive fight to recover the property. In fact, there have even been multiple documented instances of Wisconsin police seizing money from people who were trying to use the cash to bail their loved ones out of prison.

Civil Asset Forfeiture

Civil asset forfeiture is a legal mechanism that allows the police to seize assets that they have probable cause to believe were used in the commission of a crime. The concept of the law is somewhat unusual because it does not focus on the person who owns the property, but actually holds the property itself “guilty” for the criminal acts it was involved in. Although, there are some legal protections for innocent owners whose property is seized.

The law was originally implemented as a way of more easily shutting down drug kingpins by confiscating their drugs and the proceeds of drug sales. However, these laws are easily abused for multiple reasons. First, the law allows police to keep a portion of the assets they seize; so many police departments have a profit motive for seizing the assets. In Wisconsin, police departments can keep 70 percent of any seizure under $2,000 and 50 percent of any seizure in excess of that amount. Second, the law puts the burden of recovering the property on the owner, which many owners choose not to do.

Recovering the Property

If a person loses his or her assets under civil asset forfeiture law, he or she does still have the opportunity to recover it. Citizens whose property has been taken are allowed to bring a legal action to defend their assets. In fact, Wisconsin's laws on this sort of hearing are generally fairer than the majority of states. Most state laws simply require the court to prove that the money was used criminally by a preponderance of the evidence, meaning that the items were more likely than not used for or gained through criminal activities. Wisconsin's standard is higher. Wisconsin prosecutors are required to prove the criminal activity beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the same standard used for ordinary criminal cases.

Civil asset forfeiture is a serious issue, but the property can be recovered. If you have had property seized, reach out to an experienced Milwaukee criminal defense attorney today to learn more about how you can get your property back.

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