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Can police seize my property even if I'm not accused of a crime?

Imagine for a moment that your spouse has taken the family vehicle to the local bar to have a few drinks with friends. Believing that they are good to drive, your spouse leaves the bar and proceeds to drive away. But mere blocks from the bar, your spouse is pulled over by police who witnessed your spouse leaving the bar and are now accusing him or her of drunk driving.

As you already know, police can seize property after an arrest in an effort to gather evidence in the case. In accordance with Missouri law, property can include your vehicle too, especially if you have one or more prior convictions for an alcohol-related traffic offense. But what happens if you're not accused of a crime or are even found innocent? Can police still seize your property?

Much to the chagrin of residents across the state, the answer to this question is yes provided the property was "used or intended for use in the course of, derived from, or realized through criminal activity," which is stated in Section 513.607 of our state's revised statutes. Called civil asset forfeiture, this practice is not something unique to Missouri but is something that is allowed across the nation.

Even though it's legal, it's becoming increasingly controversial as more cases come forward involving law enforcement agencies that have abused this law to raise revenues for police budgets.

On top of this, there is concern that seizure of an innocent person's property is a violation of a person's Fourteenth Amendment rights as well. This concern has been raised in a number of cases that have been escalated to the U.S Supreme Court where, in a 1996 decision, the court explained:

"Cases often arise where the property of the owner is forfeited on account of the fraud, neglect, or misconduct of those intrusted with its possession, care, and custody, even when the owner is otherwise without fault . . . and it has always been held . . . that the acts of [the possessors] bind the interest of the owner . . . whether he be innocent or guilty."

Despite the Supreme Court's position on the law, many people still consider the practice controversial and are requesting that state legislators take action to prohibit the misappropriation of the law against innocent people down the road.

Sources: NPR, "Police Can Seize And Sell Assets Even When The Owner Broke No Law," Laura Sullivan, Nov. 10, 2014

scholar.google.com, "Bennis v. Michigan," Accessed Nov. 11, 2014

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