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Civil asset forfeitures take your property, even without charges

Police who suspect a person of a crime may want to search the suspect’s home and seize possible evidence of that crime. The U.S. Constitution generally requires law enforcement to obtain a search warrant before they can enter your home or other private property.

But once they enter, police can seize assets and, potentially, never return them, even if the search and seizure never leads to criminal charges. This is a controversial police power known as civil asset forfeiture, by which officers sometimes take people’s bank accounts or other valuables.

A Michigan man who grows medical marijuana was the target of one of these civil forfeitures. It was not until he complained to the media, the man says, that prosecutors charged him with a crime.

Police, claiming that the man was selling marijuana for non-medicinal purposes, seized his cash and property. That was in September. Several months later, the suspect’s story was published in the press.

At 2 a.m. the next morning, police knocked on the man’s door with an arrest warrant. He has been charged with manufacturing and delivering from five to 45 kilograms of marijuana. If convicted, he could be sent to prison for up to seven years and forced to pay a $500,000 fine.

Readers may wonder what happens to suspects’ property after Michigan police seize it. According to one 2010 report, police departments in the state have obtained more than $250 million from civil asset forfeitures since 2000. State law is supposed to require them to give the proceeds to libraries, to avoid a conflict of interest.

The Constitution requires that the government give people a due process to possibly get their property back. In reality, doing so can be difficult. It is a separate process from defending oneself against criminal charges.

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