These states let police take and keep your stuff even if you haven’t committed a crime

Only five states prevent police from taking and keeping your stuff without charging you for a crime: Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, and North Carolina. The rest fully allow what’s known as “civil forfeiture”: Police officers can seize someone’s property without proving the person was guilty of a crime; they just need probable cause to believe the assets are being used as part of criminal activity, typically drug trafficking. Police can then absorb the value of this property — be it cash, cars, guns, or something else — as profit, either through state programs or under a federal program known as Equitable Sharing that lets local and state police get up to 80 percent of the value of what they seize as money for their departments. RelatedPolice seized his life savings without charging him for a crime. Now he’s fighting back. So police can not only seize people’s property without proving involvement in a crime, but they have a financial incentive to do so. It’s the latter that state reforms attempt to limit: Police should still be able to seize property as evidence. But the changes make it so they can’t keep that property without a criminal conviction — and therefore won’t be able to take people’s property as easily for personal profit. The limits on civil forfeiture vary from state to state — but federal law leaves a loophole The five states limit forfeiture in different ways. In New Mexico and North Carolina, a court must convict the suspect of a crime before the same judge or jury can consider whether seized property can be absorbed by the state. In Minnesota, Montana, and Nevada, a suspect must be convicted of a crime in court before the seized property can be absorbed by the state through separate litigation in civil court. These limitations don’t entirely stop police from seizing someone’s property — cops can still do that with probable cause alone, and hold the property as evidence for trial. But the government won’t be able to absorb the property and its proceeds without convicting the suspect of a crime. This limits police seizures in two ways: It forces cops to show the suspect was actually involved in a crime after the property is seized, and it can deter future unfounded seizures for profit since police know they’ll need to prove a crime. Still, the states can still use federal law for civil forfeiture. Lee McGrath, legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice, a national nonprofit that opposes civil forfeiture, said that North Carolina, Nevada, Minnesota, and Montana can still work with federal law enforcement officials to take people’s property without charging them with a crime. New Mexico, meanwhile, allows local and state police to work through the federal law only for seized property that has a value of more than $50,000. Still, groups like the Institute for Justice have praised states for taking steps to limit civil forfeiture — a policy that has long been mired by criticisms and horror stories of police abuse. The civil forfeiture reforms came in response to criticisms — and stories of police abuse Critics have long argued that civil forfeiture allows law enforcement to essentially police for profit, since many of the proceeds from seizures can go back to police departments. The Washington Post’s Michael Sallah, Robert O’Harrow, and Steven Rich uncovered several stories in which people were pulled over while driving with cash and had their money taken despite no proof of a crime. The suspects in these cases were only able to get their property back after lengthy, costly court battles in which they showed they weren’t guilty of anything. Last month, I also covered the story of college student Charles Clarke, who was at the airport when police took his life savings of $11,000. Police said they smelled marijuana on Clarke’s bags — but they never proved the money was linked to crime, and Clarke provided documents that showed at least some of the money came from past jobs and government benefits. The Institute for Justice, which is involved in Clarke’s case, estimates that 13 different police agencies are now seeking a cut of Clarke’s money. It’s stories like Clarke’s that have driven some states to enact reforms. But the federal government and 45 states, as the map above demonstrates, still allow civil forfeiture. “It’s ridiculous. I think it needs to change,” Clarke told me in June. “I don’t think the cops should be allowed to take somebody’s money if they haven’t committed any crime. We’re treating innocent people like criminals.”


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