Kevin McBride of Tucson, AZ, wasn’t around when police seized his 2000 Jeep Wrangler in May 2020 after his girlfriend allegedly used the vehicle for a $25 marijuana sale. Even though the charges against her were dropped, the vehicle was still held as a party to that alleged offense, and McBride was required to pay to get his property back.
Until last month, the Pima County Attorney’s Office was demanding a $1,900 fee for the return of his vehicle, saying “an outright return of the vehicle is inappropriate in this case.” Fortunately, the vehicle owner received legal assistance from an attorney, who threatened to sue on his behalf, arguing the state’s civil forfeiture laws unconstitutionally require property owners to prove their innocence.
“They’re extorting money from me,” he said. “And I didn’t do anything. I don’t know how they can do that. You know, we don’t live in a free country anymore, because that’s not freedom.”
Civil asset forfeiture is a legal tool that allows law enforcement agencies to seize property—vehicles, cash, real estate—suspected of being connected to criminal activity without necessarily charging the property owner for any wrongdoing. Getting back forfeited property often requires the owner to prove in court that it was not involved in a crime.
Under Arizona law, the Wrangler owner could challenge the forfeiture by arguing that he “did not know and could not reasonably have known” about the alleged illegal use of his property. But the burden of proof would have been on him, and it would have required spending thousands of dollars on a lawyer with no guarantee of winning. Unlike criminal defendants, innocent property owners like this Arizona man don’t have a right to a court-appointed attorney, which makes it easier for prosecutors to pressure them into “mitigation” agreements.
Law enforcement agencies in Arizona get to keep 100 percent of the proceeds from forfeitures they handle, which means if he hadn’t challenged the seizure, the government would have sold his vehicle and local law enforcement and prosecutors would have split the proceeds. Even if he had agreed to comply, police and prosecutors would have still gotten $1,900 from the mitigation agreement even though he was never accused or charged of committing a crime.
Seizures of this kind reportedly pad law enforcement budgets by an estimated $30 million every year, which critics argue incentivizes the practice and warps policing priorities. Alabama is taking steps to make changes; it is one of 32 states that has passed some form of reform since 2014, according to the Institute of Justice.
Until more meaningful changes are made at a state and federal level, anyone who has had their property seized using civil asset forfeiture should immediately consult an attorney. Recovering seized property is usually a long process, but it will be much smoother with professional legal counsel. An experienced attorney can help you challenge the seizure and ensure you get the best chance of having your property returned to you.
South Florida Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
Has your lawful property been seized using asset forfeiture? Contact Brian Silber, P.A. to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of South Florida most experienced civil asset forfeiture defense attorneys.