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Supreme Court rejects Colorado civil forfeiture law

Last month the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Colorado law that allowed criminal defendants to recover seized money only if they could prove their innocence, even though their convictions had been overturned. This ruling could impact Nevada's criminal defense and its civil forfeiture laws, which allow the police to seize property that was allegedly used in a crime.

Civil forfeiture laws allow Nevada and other states to confiscate and keep money, vehicles and real estate without obtaining a criminal conviction or even filing charges against the property's owner. Acquitted defendants may even have their property seized in a civil court proceeding that has a lower burden of proof.

The property owner, not the government, bears the burden of proof that they did not know or agree to the use of their property in alleged criminal activity. If they fail to meet that burden, then the government can then sell the seized property.

The U.S. Supreme Court reviewed an appeal of two defendants who were convicted for sexual offenses and had to pay thousands of dollars in costs, fees, and restitution. Colorado withheld $702 from one defendant's inmate account while the other defendant paid the state $1,977 after his conviction. They demanded the return of their money when their convictions were eventually overturned. The Colorado Supreme Court ultimately ruled that these individuals could reclaim their money through its Exoneration Act, which requires the filing of a civil claim and proof that the person was innocent of the crime for which they were convicted.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7-1 decision, reversed this decision. It ruled that the Colorado law does not comply with Constitutional due process guarantees, as the defendants are entitled to the presumption of innocence. The Court also held that this presumption also applies to civil proceedings for monetary extractions. This ruling could possibly extend a presumption of innocence to property owners in civil forfeiture proceedings.

A Nevada lawmaker introduced a bill this year that would change's forfeiture laws. Under the proposed law, property could be forfeited if the underlying crime provides for forfeiture and there is proof of a criminal conviction, a plea agreement, or agreement for forfeiture among the parties. The state must also prove by clear and convincing evidence that the property may be forfeited.

As this illustrates, a criminal charge can have unforeseen penalties for individuals charged with a crime and even others who were not involved in criminal activity. Those who find themselves in such a position should consider contacting an attorney who can help them protect their rights.

Source: Forbes, "Supreme Court rejects guilty until proven innocent, says states cannot keep money from the innocent," By Nick Sibilla, May 2, 2017

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