Why Did the Government Take My Property? Can I Get It Back?

Gavel and block with toy house

In Tennessee, there are a variety of reasons the state might seize, and eventually seek forfeiture of your property. These include the suspicion that your property was either used to commit a crime or was acquired through criminal activity. Common examples are vehicles, paraphernalia, and money involved in drug crimes. Property can also be seized if the state intends to use it as evidence in court.

It’s also possible sometimes that your property is legal to own up until an arrest, even if the property had nothing to do with the crime. With guns, for example, if you are arrested for a violent or domestic crime, officers in Tennessee have the authority to seize guns that are around in plain view.

Lawyer’s Note: “In my experience, if a person is charged with a violent felony, Judges have sometimes made it a condition of bond that the person is forbidden to possess guns while the case is pending.”

Typically, someone who has had their property seized is also involved in criminal charges stemming from the same incident that led to the seizure. If that property is being held purely for evidentiary reasons, then that property will almost always be held until the case is entirely resolved. If the state suspects that the property was used to commit or was gained from criminal activity, then they might seek forfeiture of that person’s interest in the property.

Lawyer’s Note: “In my opinion, if the property is being held purely as evidence, most Judges in Tennessee will be reluctant to release the property until the underlying case is resolved. Federal prosecutors have started seeking forfeitures of assets derived from the sale of drugs and commonly try to seize bank accounts and even houses that were derived through the sale of drugs.”

If they do, the agent who seized your property must go in front of a judge to obtain a forfeiture warrant, which states the judge believes there was probable cause for the officer to seize the property and to believe that it might be subject to forfeiture. If the forfeiture warrant was signed by a magistrate judge, it is possible to appeal, but the appeal must be filed within 10 days of when the warrant was signed. If not, then the warrant is processed, the owners and parties are sent notices, and the parties have 30 days to request a hearing. If no hearing is requested, you risk a default judgment against you and losing the property that was seized. If agreed to between both the state and the owners of the property, you can request that the general sessions court handling your criminal case also determines what happens to your property after the resolution of that case.

Lawyer’s Note: “Sometimes the police will attempt to seize your property at the scene of an arrest and hand the person a green carbon piece of paper saying that the State of Tennessee is seeking forfeiture of a person’s vehicle, money, or other property if that person was using the vehicle to transport or deliver drugs or even multiple offense DUI offenders vehicle. Unless you want the state to keep your property you should request a hearing pursuant to TCA § 40-33-201, stating that you would like a hearing to be heard on whether or not the state should be ankle to keep or sell your property.”

The state might also try to negotiate a settlement with you prior to a hearing, in which you might agree to forfeit certain items or amounts of property for the guaranteed return of others. If you can’t reach an agreement, or you don’t want to settle, then the hearing will proceed in front of a judge who will determine what happens with the property and whether the state has met its burden of proving that it is subject to forfeiture. And like most cases, you are able to appeal the initial decision to a higher civil court in the area.

If you want to read the applicable law surrounding criminal forfeitures, you can find it under Title 39 Chapter 11, and Title 40 Chapter 33.