People across the country have been appalled at recent revelations of how police officers are abusing existing civil forfeiture laws to fund frivolous expenses for their departments. Missouri in particular made headlines on this topic when a clip of an officer in Columbia, MO describing the lack of oversight on civil forfeiture funds was featured on Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. The clip went viral online, drawing a great deal of attention to this subject.
Missouri is one of many states that allow officers to confiscate property from citizens if that property is suspected of being used or gained from criminal activity. The law, in chapter 513 section 607 of the Missouri Revised Statutes, allows for, “all property of every kind, including cash or other negotiable instruments” to be confiscated. This can be done in any case where the officer has probable cause to suspect that the property may somehow be related to criminal behavior.
As most reports on civil forfeiture highlight, once property is seized, it can be incredibly difficult to recover, as it becomes your responsibility to prove that the property itself is in no way related to criminal behavior. It is, however, quite simple to avoid most situations where an officer might be able to seize your property.
First, and most obviously, avoid traveling with large sums of case on your person. Not only can the police not take it, but neither can anyone else. If this is not avoidable, you should keep your cash or valuable goods in a locked area of your vehicle, like your glove compartment. If an officer asks you you have any large amounts of money in your car, remember that you have the right to remain silent, and you are not legally obligated to answer this sort of question. If the officer persists and asks to search your vehicle, you should state that you do not consent to any searches. Ask the officer if you are free to go after protesting the search. If he or she does not already have probable cause, they can not legally detain you and must let you go.
It is highly unlikely that the average motorist will ever encounter this kind of issue when stopped by a police officer. However, it is important to be aware of your rights and when to use them to protect yourself any time you have to interact with the authorities.