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How to Get Seized Cash Back

When police seize your property, it can be a daunting experience, especially if it includes cash. Often, cash seizures occur under civil asset forfeiture laws, allowing authorities to take property suspected of being connected to criminal activity without necessarily charging the owner with a crime. Here’s a detailed guide on how to navigate this process and potentially get your seized money back.

The Process

To begin the process of recovering seized cash, it’s crucial to understand which department—state, local, or federal—conducted the seizure. The procedure will vary accordingly. For example, even if your property was seized by state police, it could be transferred to a federal agency like the DEA, Justice Department, or Customs under the ‘equitable sharing program,’ where the local agency receives a portion of the seized assets’ value.

If the seizure is federal, you will typically receive a Notice of Forfeiture or a civil forfeiture complaint via registered mail. If you haven’t received any notice, you may have to wait until the government initiates the process. Current forfeiture laws prevent you from filing a civil lawsuit to retrieve your property immediately. However, if the government takes an unreasonable amount of time, you can raise an ‘unreasonable delay’ defense.

Steps to Take When You Receive Notice

Upon receiving a Notice of Forfeiture from federal agencies like the DEA or FBI, you must act promptly. This notice will outline the process, which involves filing an Administrative Claim and, if necessary, posting a cost bond. The Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 (CAFRA) eliminated most cost bonds, but for seizures involving U.S. Customs laws, a cost bond of 10% of the property’s value might still be required. If you cannot afford this, you can request a waiver.

You generally have 35 days from receiving the notice to file your claim, which must be a sworn statement under penalty of perjury, detailing your interest in the property and asserting that your claim is not frivolous. If the notice suggests filing a Petition for Remission or Mitigation instead, it’s advisable to avoid this route, as the agency that seized your property rarely decides in favor of returning it, and there is no hearing or appeal process.

Legal Proceedings

After you file your claim and any required cost bond, the U.S. Attorney’s Office reviews your case. If they proceed with the forfeiture, they will file a civil case with the U.S. District Court, where you will be served with a complaint. You have 30 days to file a Verified Claim, a sworn statement detailing your interest in the property, followed by 20 days to file an answer, specifying your defenses and requesting a jury trial.

Defenses to Forfeiture

Several defenses can be used in forfeiture cases:

  • Innocent Owner: Demonstrating that you did not know about or consent to the illegal use of the property.
  • Unreasonable Delay: Arguing that the government took too long to file the case or bring it to trial without justification.
  • Illegal Search and Seizure: Moving to suppress evidence obtained through illegal means.
  • Statutory Defenses: Utilizing specific defenses provided under various forfeiture statutes.
  • Disproportionality: Arguing that the forfeiture is excessive in relation to the offense.

Consult with your attorney to determine which defenses apply to your situation.

Common Questions

How long will my case take? A forfeiture case can last from several months to years. It’s essential to have a good attorney and budget for legal costs. If you can’t afford an attorney, representing yourself will likely result in losing the case.

Does Amtrak notify authorities about bulk cash? Yes, Amtrak has software to detect unusual ticket patterns and notifies the DEA, which can lead to cash seizures.

What happens when my cash is seized by the government? The seized cash is held by the U.S. Treasury pending a final forfeiture order. You must wait for a letter from the federal government, typically sent within 90 days, which you must respond to within 30 days.

Where do most bulk cash seizures occur, and which agencies are involved? Most seizures occur at major airline hubs. See cash seized at airport. Domestically, the DEA and Homeland Security are involved, while U.S. Customs and Border Protection handles international cases and highway interdictions. See customs money seized. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service deals with mail-related seizures.

How are these laws constitutional? Civil asset forfeiture laws have been upheld despite challenges, as they provide fewer procedural safeguards compared to typical criminal cases, focusing instead on disrupting criminal enterprises.


Recovering seized cash involves understanding the legal process, acting promptly, and often seeking professional legal help. While civil asset forfeiture aims to combat criminal activities, it can also lead to significant challenges for innocent property owners. Being informed and prepared can help protect your assets and ensure that your rights are upheld throughout the process.

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