If I am pulled over for speeding and have a large amount of money on me, can the government keep it?

Question

I usually carry a lot of cash. If I am pulled over for speeding and have a large amount of money in my wallet, can the government keep it?

Answer

If you’re arrested, all of your belongings will be inventoried at the jail. But whether you’ll get everything back is the question.

Under federal and state laws, law enforcement officers can seize property, including cash, if the money is earned from or used to commit a crime. The seizure is known as “forfeiture,” and it’s done without compensation to the owner. If police have reason to believe that you are involved in certain illegal activities, such as selling drugs, they can seize any property you have on you, including cash. In short, you might lose the cash if there’s evidence that it was the proceeds of an illegal activity. Police are not permitted to seize property simply because the driver committed a traffic violation, but the fact that you are carrying a lot of cash can raise suspicion that you might be involved in other crimes.

Although forfeiture is intended to deter criminal activity, the simple truth is that seizures also produce revenue for law enforcement agencies. As a result, some police departments and prosecutors use forfeiture aggressively, even when there is little evidence of wrongdoing.

Forfeiture: Civil and Criminal

Forfeiture can be civil or criminal. In criminal forfeiture, the defendant is first convicted of a crime that allows for forfeiture, such as drug trafficking or money laundering. Then, if the prosecutor can prove that the defendant’s property was earned from or used in illegal activity, the government seizes that property.

For more information on forfeiture in federal criminal cases, see  Forfeiting Property in a Federal Criminal Case.

In civil forfeiture, the owner does not need to be convicted of (or even charged with) a crime. Civil forfeiture laws allow law enforcement officers to seize property that they suspect is connected to criminal activity. Then, it’s up to the owner to show that the property has no connection to any crime.

For example, in 2007, Roderick Daniels was driving through East Texas when police stopped him for going two miles per hour over the speed limit. Daniels was on his way to purchase a car and was carrying $8,500 in cash. Police accused him of money laundering and successfully seized the money. There was no other evidence of criminal activity, and Daniels was never formally charged with a crime.

Tainted Property

Historically, civil forfeiture was based on the idea that the seized property itself was tainted, so it was irrelevant whether the property’s current owner was involved in criminal activity. For example, smuggled goods were subject to forfeiture, regardless of the owner’s innocence.

This theory makes sense when applied to certain goods that are always prohibited, such as child pornography or heroin. Even if these goods came into the hands of an innocent person, most people would agree that the government could legitimately seize these items.

But modern laws allow police departments to seize money and other goods if officers suspect that the money is associated illegal activity such as money laundering, drug trafficking, or organized crime. If you carry a lot of cash and are stopped by police, they may suspect you of being a drug dealer or, like Roderick Daniels, a money launderer. If they can develop enough evidence to support their suspicions, they might initiate forfeiture proceedings.

“You’re Not from Around Here, Are You?”

Particularly when stopped by police in another state, many people find that they do not have the time or resources to defend themselves. Far from home and in unfamiliar surroundings, people often will do whatever it takes to avoid being arrested and taken to jail.

A driver’s desire to quickly end a confrontation can lead to some unfortunate police practices, netting the innocent as well as the guilty. In some counties, particularly those located in areas frequented by narcotics traffickers, police often stop cars with out-of-state plates for the slightest infraction, suspecting that the driver may be a cash-laden trafficker—or a hapless innocent who is also carrying a lot of money. Many times, drivers have been stopped for something as simple as improper lane changing, held for an hour or so, and then threatened with charges if they did not cooperate with a civil forfeiture of their money. Many owners sign away their property after police threaten to file charges, and never recover it.

To avoid this situation, be very careful when driving with out-of-state plates. If you are stopped, treat the officer politely, but do not answer any questions (besides identifying yourself) or consent to a search without first talking to an attorney.

Defenses to Forfeiture

Owners can protect themselves. Property cannot be seized if it was not involved in a crime or if the “innocent owner” was not aware of the illegal nature or use of the property. However, in civil forfeiture cases, owners sometimes have to first file a lawsuit (an expensive proposition) to raise these defenses.

Getting Legal Advice and Representation

If your property is seized, you should contact a criminal defense attorney immediately. Forfeiture proceedings can be complicated. You will need an attorney to represent your interests. With an attorney’s help, hopefully you can protect your property rights.

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