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How Does Civil Asset Forfeiture Work?


The term “civil asset forfeiture” is quite a mouthful. The word “forfeiture” implies that something is being given up, but what exactly? Civil asset forfeiture is a process by which law enforcement officials can seize money, property, and other things that they believe to be related to a crime. If the police believe that money or other property was, is, or will be connected to some sort of criminal activity, that alone is enough for them to seize the property. However, often innocent people are forced by police to give up tens of thousands of dollars for no good reason.

Of course, such power is not without limits. The seizure of the property does have to be upheld by a court. If the court finds that the seizure was not justified, then the government will have to return the property. This process is well illustrated by a recent case out of Cleburne County, Blackwell v. State of Alabama.

This case followed a very interesting path. Mr. Blackwell, the victim of the seizure, was a California resident. He flew to Atlanta after his aunt in Louisiana passed away. While there, he worked on raising funds to help pay for his aunt’s funeral. He raised $10,000 for the funeral and was given another $4,500 by his wife.

After gathering the money, Blackwell rented a car to travel to Louisiana for the funeral. However, once on the road, things went wrong. He was pulled over by a police officer for speeding, and the officer saw marijuana stems in the center console of the car. When he asked Blackwell to get out of the vehicle, he saw a bulge in Blackwell’s clothes. A search found a plastic bag with $13,020 inside.

The police seized the money, and Blackwell pleaded guilty to second-degree possession of marijuana. According to Alabama law, any money spent or intended to be spent for drugs can be seized under civil asset forfeiture. The government must file a lawsuit to keep the seized money, but once the lawsuit is finished, the money is theirs. In this case, the government filed a lawsuit and the trial court found that the money was seized properly. However, Blackwell appealed.

The appeals court reviewed the case and determined that the law had not been followed properly. According to the court, the government was supposed to present evidence showing that there was a connection to a specific drug purchase. The court further stated that drugs simply being close to the money was not enough to justify seizure. To paraphrase the court, proximity of drugs to cash does not satisfy the State’s burden of proof. As a result, Mr. Blackwell got his money back.

If you are involved in any criminal matter, you should know your rights and be prepared to defend them in court. Having a criminal defense attorney who knows the ins and outs of the law can be a huge factor in getting the best result. If you or someone you know are in need of a criminal defense lawyer in Birmingham, call INGRAM LAW LLC at 205-335-2640.

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