The answer to those questions may surprise you. In fact, the police need neither a conviction nor even a criminal charge to seize your property. The name of the game is "civil asset forfeiture", and police across the nation are waking up to the fact that it's a lucrative business. It starts out simply enough: Laws are passed that allow police to confiscate property they suspect was acquired as the gains of unlawful activity. For example, if you deal drugs and pay for a sweet new ride with the proceeds from your drug selling, the police can confiscate the car. Most people never see the twisted side of these laws, a side that enables police officers to take the property of law-abiding citizens without anything approaching the kind of evidence that would be permissible in a criminal court case.
Many of these cases require nothing but a showing of "probable cause", the police are allowed to use hearsay as evidence, and the accused has no recourse but to attempt to prove his innocence (and here you thought that you were innocent until proven guilty). Even if you win, the state is likely to keep a portion of the forfeited property as a fee or demand a fee to return your property to you, not to mention that you will be out quite a bit of cash for court costs that the state has no obligation to repay. Add to this the fact that the police are usually the recipients of these forfeited assets, and you have a situation in which the police have a perverse incentive not to confiscate just the proceeds of illegal activity, but instead everything they can get their hands on.
Here are just some examples:
Example: Officers initiate legal proceedings to confiscate $17,500 from a motorist because a drug dog indicated that drugs might be found in his car. Upon a search, no drugs were found, and the man was never charged with any crime. The police took the money anyway.
Examples: A woman waiting for her friend to pick her up from the bank allegedly "makes eye-contact" with a passing motorist. When her friend finally comes to pick her up, the police charge her with soliciting prostitution and her car is seized. A man has his van seized because police says he "slowed down" in front of a known drug house. No drugs were found in the van.
Example: A man sells a truck to another man on credit. The buyer goes to jail for a DUI charge. The police seize the truck for themselves, even though they were made aware the buyer of the truck was not the owner of the title.
And then there's just plain robbery:
Law enforcement authorities in this East Texas town of 1,000 people seized property from at least 140 motorists between 2006 and 2008, and, to date, filed criminal charges against fewer than half, according to a review of court documents by the San Antonio Express-News.
Virtually anything of value was up for grabs: cash, cell phones, personal jewelry, a pair of sneakers, and often, the very car that was being driven through town.
Some affidavits filed by officers relied on the presence of seemingly innocuous property as the only evidence that a crime had occurred.
Linda Dorman, an Akron, Ohio, great-grandmother had $4,000 in cash taken from her by local authorities when she was stopped while driving through town after visiting Houston in April 2007. Court records make no mention that anything illegal was found in her van. She’s still hoping for the return of what she calls “her life savings.”
Guillory alleges in the lawsuit that while his clients were detained, they were presented with an ultimatum: waive your rights to your property in exchange for a promise to be released and not be criminally charged.
It doesn't stop at the state level, either. The ATF has had Leathermans distributed to its officers with the words "Always Think Forfeiture" engraved on them.
It just goes to show you what the government is concerned with these days. It's not about bringing criminals to justice, it's not about preventing crimes, it's about drudging up revenue in any way possible.
(For further reading, this would be a good place to start.)