Civil Forfeiture While Traveling in Ohio

Although civil asset seizure has always been prevalent in the United States, it has been more pervasive over the last several decades as the federal government has been training and encouraging local law enforcement agencies to seize personal property from those traveling on America’s highways.  If there is any “suspicion” that the property is connected to a crime, it is at risk of seizure.


A simple traffic stop by law enforcement can result in asset seizure without ever being charged with a crime. Law enforcement agencies are trained to ask for permission to search a vehicle and many times, perfectly innocent items can prompt an asset seizure.  In many instances, law enforcement agencies will not even pursue a forfeiture case, leaving it to the law abiding citizen to sue the department for return of their seized property.  Broad application of civil forfeiture has made it ripe for abuse, and has given rise to a system of policing for profit that lets departments pad their budgets with assets seized from innocent civilians. 


Ohio has recently passed legislation to rein in some of these abuses.  Cash or property valued at under $15,000 will require a criminal conviction prior to forfeiture.  Anything above $15,000 will remain in the civil system, though the law raises the burden of proof for forfeiture, meaning authorities will first have to show by “clear and convincing evidence” that property is linked to criminal activity. Although this is a lower burden of proof than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard required for a criminal conviction, it is the highest standard in the civil system.


The new law also closes a loophole that had allowed Ohio police departments to sidestep state civil forfeiture laws by partnering with federal agencies in a program known as equitable sharing, which allows state and local police to pursue forfeiture through the less restrictive federal process. The law in Ohio holds that transfers to federal authorities can only take place when the value of the seized property exceeds $100,000.


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