Civil asset forfeiture is a law that allows authorities to seize property—cars, electronics, cash, etc.—that is believed to be connected to a crime.
According to the report, police in St. Charles County allegedly coerced at least 39 unsuspecting motorists into signing over their assets in 2018. In many of these cases, the officers would purportedly keep an eye out for suspicious vehicles committing minor traffic violations to justify a stop. The officers would pull the vehicle over, question the driver, and then take them to a towing lot owned by Superior Towing.
While at the lot, officers would start to take apart the vehicles and further interrogate the drivers. They would reportedly search the vehicles for large amounts of cash and connections to drugs.
If a police dog smelled cannabis on any cash they found, the officers would give the drivers two options: sign a legal waiver surrendering anything found in the vehicle to the department and leave with a traffic ticket, or get arrested and go to jail. Records show no criminal charges were filed in any of the 39 cases. 12 of the cases occurred after midnight, and almost half involved motorists of Asian or Hispanic descent.
Missouri’s forfeiture laws are better than most: they require a criminal conviction or guilty plea before forfeiture, and the assets are supposed to go towards schools, not law enforcement. So how did police in St. Charles get away with so many seizures?
According to the report, police circumvented state law using a loophole in the federal Equitable Sharing program. Under the program, police can turn over the seized assets to the Justice Department, which then “adopts” them. The federal government keeps 20 percent of the proceeds and returns up to 80 percent to local police. No conviction or criminal charges are required.
A legislative effort led by Rep. Shamed Dogan (R-Baldwin) to close off the federal loophole and force police to comply with state law was defeated during the last Missouri legislative session after a lobby group representing local police quietly campaigned against it, branding it “anti-police.”
Dogan’s bill would have put a big dent in law enforcement budgets. According to the state auditor’s office, police in Missouri reportedly seized $9 million in 2018. In total, law enforcement agencies collected around $5 million from about 60 traffic stops. Police in St. Charles County seized the most out of all the counties.
The chances of the motorists getting their assets back are slim. By signing away ownership in the towing lot, they are legally saying they don’t have the right to the cash, which makes them lose their standing to claim it in court.
Regardless of the potential outcome, it is crucial for victims of asset forfeiture to seek out an experienced attorney who can help them petition the government for the return of seized property.
South Florida Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
If you are involved in a civil asset forfeiture case, then you should hire an attorney. Contact Brian Silber, P.A. to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of South Florida’s most experienced civil asset forfeiture attorneys.