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Supreme Court Expands Police Power to Seize Your Assets Before Conviction


Supreme Court Expands Police Power to Seize Your Assets Before Conviction
Damon Root
|Feb. 27, 2014 3:22 pm

It’s been a banner week for law enforcement at the U.S. Supreme Court. On Tuesday, in the case of Fernandez v. California, the Court broadened the power of the police to conduct warrantless home searches. But it was a decision handed down on Monday that’s likely to have the greatest impact on our criminal justice system.

At issue in Monday’s ruling in Kaley v. United States is an area of the law known as asset forfeiture. In essence, asset forfeiture is designed to help law enforcement officials seize the ill-gotten fruits of criminal activity, such as cash, cars, or homes. To that end, prosecutors are permitted to freeze the assets of criminal suspects during trial if there is probable cause to believe those assets constitute “proceeds” of the alleged criminal activity. Notice that this freezing occurs before the suspect has been duly convicted.

That timing matters a great deal to the plaintiffs in this case, a married couple by the name of Kaley who have been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of selling stolen medical supplies. That may sound like a finding of guilt, but in fact grand jury proceedings are a non-adversarial process where the prosecution alone is permitted to call witnesses and present evidence. The suspects have no opportunity at that point to rebut anything the government alleges against them.