We all learned in school that people have rights. Among other things, we learned that you can’t be deprived of your property except by a legal process that involves a court. You get the ability to make a defense, and a judge or a jury decides.

And all of that is true, most of the time. But imagine this scenario.

A Wisconsin kid gets arrested on drug charges. In a panic, he calls his mom and tells her that she needs to post bail for him. And the mother does everything correctly. She calls the jail. She asks what the procedure is for her to post bail. They tell her the bail amount, ask her to bring cash, and tell her where to drop it off.

So the mom springs into action and rounds up the cash. It’s $7500, so it’s a lot of money – but between her and other family members, they pull cash out of the bank. She cashes a tax refund check. She gets all of the money together, drives it to the jail, and hands it over.

If you’re expecting the next sentence to be “and then they released her son, pending trial”, your optimism is commendable – but that’s not what happened.

When the mother got to the jail, the jail staff called in the drug task force. They brought out a drug-sniffing dog, and the dog signaled the presence of narcotics on the bills. Some estimates say that 80% of US currency has been in contact with drugs, so that’s not really surprising – but it didn’t matter. The government seized the money, and the son stayed in jail.

It’s important to note that the mom wasn’t charged with any crimes. They didn’t say that she was dealing drugs. They just said that the money had drug residue on it. And thus, to summarize the law, the money itself was guilty of a crime.

This process of seizing assets is called “Civil Asset Forfeiture”. It doesn’t require that a person be convicted. And it’s not even a temporary thing – the police get to keep the money unless you can prove that the money wasn’t tied to a crime. In this case, even after producing ATM receipts, tax refund check stubs, and other documentation, the mother actually had to sue the state to get the money back. In fact, it took four months and a lawyer just to get the money back.

Originally Civil Asset Forfeiture was designed to put a dent in organized crime and large criminal enterprises by cutting off their access to funds that they could use to commit their criminal activities, including things like bribing elected officials and judges.

Whether or not that makes sense for organized crime – that’s a whole separate discussion – it’s moved beyond that. Any police officer, anywhere in the United States, can generally seize any property they have a “reasonable belief” was involved in a crime. Some states even actually allow the police departments to keep the money, which creates a “policing for profit” incentive. Wisconsin doesn’t go that far – requiring that forfeited assets be put into the state education system – but they still can, and do, seize assets.

What does this mean for you? What can you do to avoid problems with this crazy rule?

There’s not a lot that you can do. Long story short, don’t keep or carry large amounts of cash or valuables. Ever. For any reason. If you’re involved in any interaction with the police – including something as routine as a traffic stop – cash and valuables can be confiscated on remarkably little evidence. Nothing even close to the evidence they’d need to charge you, a person with rights, of a crime.

This advice is doubly true if you’re posting bail! And if a police station ever asks you to post bail, no matter what they say don’t bring cash – use a cashier’s check.

Even better, call a lawyer and let them handle the arrangements for you. Lawyers know the court system, they know the rules, and they can help you get out of your current legal trouble without landing you (and your family!) in even more trouble.

I sincerely hope this information helps you avoid legal hot water in the future. If you do end up in a legal jam though, please don’t hesitate to contact me!

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