When law enforcement officials make an arrest, sometimes they take more than just the suspect into custody. Police routinely seize property that is in the possession of the accused and witnesses, as well as items that they believe are pertinent to the crime scene. If the police seize your property, the procedure for getting it returned can vary, depending on the type of property and the reason it was taken.
Property Taken for Safekeeping
Law enforcement officials often take a suspect's property at the time of an arrest or booking for the purposes of preventing theft and not for use as evidence. This property is often held at the station house or property clerk's office -- and the suspect is usually given a voucher specifying the items taken and indicating where the property is being stored. If you did not receive a voucher -- which often occurs if you are immediately transferred for booking -- or lost it, once you are released, you may be able to obtain one by going to the precinct where you were arrested and asking to speak with the property officer. To safeguard your property, you can ask permission to photograph the item before it is taken from you. You may also want to write down a description of what the item is, its value and note any serial numbers. This will further protect you in the event that your property cannot be linked to you through the voucher, or if it is damaged or misplaced.
Claiming Your Items
Although state and local procedures vary, the process for collecting your property usually involves presenting your identification and the voucher or claim form to the property clerk at the location where the property is being held. If you are detained for an extended period, such as if you are awaiting trial, it is not uncommon for the department to allow you to have a friend or family member retrieve the property seized for safekeeping for you. You may need to sign a notarized authorization letter -- and your friend or family member will need to present appropriate identification.
Property as Evidence
Law enforcement officials also take property for use in an investigation or prosecution. If your property was taken for this purpose, it can be more difficult to get back and you may need to wait several months or even years until the case wraps up. If it turns out that your property is not being used as evidence, you will need to request a release letter from the prosecutor, which you must present to the property clerk along with your identification and claim form or voucher. In some states, if the prosecutor denies the request, you are entitled to an explanation and review by the supervising attorney. Some local rules require the prosecutor to get a court order before retaining certain types of property -- such as an automobile -- and you are entitled to a hearing on the matter. Because this process can be complicated, you may benefit from having an attorney present or contacting a witness assistance program.
Law enforcement officials may also seize property that they believe was used during the commission of a crime. This might include items such as a lock-picking kit that facilitated a home invasion or a car used as a location to sell drugs. These items can be used both as evidence and forfeited to the police and sold. The process for determining what seized property will be forfeited can vary greatly among states -- and in many states, even if you are not actually convicted of a crime, you can still be subject to property forfeiture. Further, in some states, police officers can simply declare property forfeited, while other states require a court proceeding. Required procedures can also vary depending on the type of property seized. For instance, in New York, if your car is impounded, you have the right to request a hearing within 10 days. At the hearing, the police will need to prove that you car was used in the commission of a crime and that forfeiting it is necessary to protect public safety. If the property does not meet these requirements, the court will order the police to return the car to you.
Some property is illegal to possess and you are not entitled to have it returned under any circumstances. This property is referred to as "contraband" and includes items like drugs, drug paraphernalia, illegal firearms, and counterfeit money. These items are typically held for evidence during an investigation or prosecution and then ordered destroyed after the disposition of your case.