When police raid a building (after obtaining a search warrant), they will usually take items that they think are related to any potential criminal charges. In addition to a search warrant, there are generally three other times when the police can seize a person's personal property. This includes:
Common items seized include things like "drug money," vehicles, homes or other real estate, firearms, drug paraphernalia, and other property, including anything purchased with so-called “dirty money.”
Incident to arrest means that the police find certain items while searching you for potentially committing a crime (for example, a crack pipe in your pocket). Those items, so long as the search was justified, can be seized and later used against you.
A search warrant is a court order issued by a judge. It allows the police to conduct a search of a person or property (like a house) to find evidence of a crime and to seize evidence.
However, to be granted a search warrant, the police must show that there is "probable cause." Probable cause means that there is "a reasonable belief that a person has committed a crime." However, there is one exception to this rule. It is called the "hot pursuit" rule. This rule applies when a police officer is in "hot pursuit" of a suspected criminal on foot or by vehicle.
If a person consents to give an item to the police, there is not an issue. Legal issues may come up if the person feels that they are coerced, convinced, threatened, or tricked into giving the item over to the police.
Finally, if there is a seizure order, then a person must give up possession of their item. They will face penalties if they refuse a seizure order, such as being held in contempt of court, which could mean spending time in jail.
Generally, the police seize an item because it may be used as a piece of evidence against the defendant at trial. These items are usually cataloged and kept in a secure storage location, with a record of who examined it and when.
This helps create a "chain of evidence" (meaning a person did not interfere or change out the item).
However, after a criminal investigation, most items are returned to the person, unless they fall into the War on Drugs Asset Forfeiture laws.
These laws allow the police or government to hold onto items, property, or real estate if the owner is engaged in illegal activities. An example is if someone used their car to transport cocaine and the police take the car, or if they used “drug money” to purchase luxury items.
The items that are not returned are usually put up for auction to the highest bidder. The money made from the sale typically goes to the police and local government..
The Supreme Court has limits to civil forfeiture laws because they can be easily abused. Under your Eighth Amendment rights against excessive fines, it may be able to argue that the property the police seized is not equal to the crime involved.
An example is a person who sells $100 in cannabis. The police may seize their expensive car if they believe the drugs were sold from the vehicle. However, selling the person’s $50,000 car does not qualify for a petty crime.
People can still have their property seized by police, whether fairly or unfairly. However, now attorneys can argue that the seizure was excessive under the Supreme Court ruling.