In the past, federal agents and prosecutors have sought subpoenas and search warrants that authorize the seizure of every electronic device at the location to be searched – computers, servers, external hard drives and cell phones. This policy has resulted in an exponential growth in seized data.
It’s 6 a.m. or 8 p.m., your doorbell rings and two people are standing outside holding up their badges and credentials. They say they are Special Agents with the FBI or IRS and would like to talk with you for just a few minutes about something important. They ask if they could come in to [...]
I have written a number of times about modern technology being used in criminal investigations, from cellphone towers tracking our phones, to Alexa and other smart home devices used to record internet searches and conversations, to security cameras used to spy on their homeowners. Recently, the New York Times and other media outlets reported that Google has the ability to track which cellphones are in the area of a crime scene at a particular time. Once law enforcement narrows down which phones they are interested in, they obtain a warrant for the particular cellphone owner’s information.
Police and prosecutors around the country routinely seize and forfeit cars, boats, money, computers, guns and homes that were “used in, or facilitated, the criminal activity charged.” While many cases involve significant crimes and the forfeitures are justified, too often the person is charged with fairly low-level drug sales and their car is seized if it was used to transport the drugs during the sales. The federal and state governments argue that forfeitures are simply part of the cost of the criminal’s conduct and work as a separate fine on the illegal activity. These fines and forfeitures are often used to supplement local and state budgets, including those of the very agencies that seized and forfeited the property.
Much has been written and tweeted about this past week concerning this topic. Politics aside for the moment, what does the government need to demonstrate to a court that a place should be searched, or a person’s phone calls should be intercepted?
The police stop you for an alleged driving infraction – speeding, failure to stay in lane, tinted windows – and while talking with you the officer smells the odor of marijuana. The officer asks you to step out of the car, searches the car and finds drugs. You contact a criminal defense attorney to defend you and explore the possibility of a motion to suppress the search. If you are the driver of a personal vehicle or the owner, you have what is known as an expectation of privacy and “standing” to suppress the search. However, if you are a passenger of the vehicle, or the driver of a rental car that was rented by a friend or family member and you are not listed on the rental agreement, you may lack standing to challenge the search of the vehicle.
On December 19, 2016, the New Jersey Assembly and Senate unanimously passed a much-needed civil forfeiture reporting bill that, if signed into law by Governor Christie, would shed light on a much-criticized practice in which law enforcement agencies reap huge profits by seizing property “connected” to criminal activity, even in cases where no one has been charged with or found guilty of a crime.
There have been stories in the news recently about how the government – at both the New Jersey and federal levels – has been using asset forfeiture as a means of funding law enforcement activities. While this may not come as a surprise in cases where criminal defendants have been convicted of crimes and the assets seized represented their ill-gotten gains, the reality is that sometimes people are having their property taken away from them without a warrant requirement or even being charged with anything.
At the federal level, the government can seize property using a variety of means. It can do so administratively; it can do so through the criminal justice system; and it can do so in civil court actions. Civil asset forfeitures can be particularly pernicious, with more than $4 billion of property assets seized nationally in one year alone, and more than $2 billion in cash being seized from individuals who were never charged with a crime.