You loan your car to an old friend and then you never see it again. No, the car wasn’t stolen or wrecked in an accident. Your friend is being charged with drug possession and the police have confiscated your car. Now they’re telling you that they’re never giving it back unless you prove to them that you had no idea that your friend was going to have drugs in the car.
This sounds like a nightmare, like something that wouldn’t happen in America, but it’s real. It’s called civil asset forfeiture and it’s used by law enforcement to confiscate property (vehicles, homes, cash, etc) that they claim has been used in a crime or a public nuisance, or was bought with the profits of a crime.
Maryland’s Forfeiture Law
Police around the county have a strong incentive to look for excuses to confiscate your property; the money often goes directly into their budget. The Maryland Legislature tried to discourage overly aggressive asset forfeiture by money earned from selling confiscated property would go into the general fund for that county rather than directly to the police who confiscated it. Here’s what the Institute for Justice said about Maryland’s forfeiture law in their “Policing for Profit” report:
Procedurally, Maryland does not afford strong protections to property owners swept up in civil forfeiture, but it does eliminate the profit incentive. Property can be forfeited under a preponderance of the evidence standard; the government must merely prove it is more likely than not that the property was involved in a crime, a far lower standard than beyond a reasonable doubt. Property owners are effectively “guilty until proven innocent”: To contest a seizure, the property owner must prove that the property was wrongfully seized or that the owner did not have actual knowledge of the conduct. But Maryland civil forfeiture law, unlike most other states, avoids creating a profit incentive for local law enforcement. All proceeds from civil forfeiture flow to the state general fund or the local governing body.
Unfortunately, the police get around forfeiture laws by giving your property to federal agents who aren’t bound by this rule. When the federal agents sell your property, they then give a share of the profits back to the local police. This is called “equitable sharing” and it happens all the time. Here’s more from the same Institute for Justice report:
With the profit incentive eliminated under state law, Maryland law enforcement can and does still obtain forfeited property by working with federal authorities through adoption and equitable sharing. Despite the mandate that forfeiture proceeds go the general fund, state law enforcement, working with their federal partners, received more than $50 million in forfeiture revenue from 2000 to 2008. This end-run around state forfeiture law was challenged in court, but the Maryland Court of Appeals ratified the practice of equitable sharing even when law enforcement failed to obtain a court order permitting the use of the loophole. [http://www.ij.org/asset-forfeiture-report-maryland]
What can you do?
What you need is an attorney on your side who knows the rules and can help you get your property back. Maryland law on civil asset forfeiture is very complicated. There are a number of different defenses and argument that an attorney can make against forfeiture. A lot of the people on the other side (both police and prosecutors) aren’t as familiar with the rules they should be. They’re hoping that you won’t hire an attorney who knows how to use the law against them and fight back. Did they miss a deadline? Was there some technical problem with their justification for forfeiture? These are the kinds of things they are hoping you will miss if you try to defend yourself in an asset forfeiture case.
Get an attorney and show the State that you’re not backing down.