Being arrested in Maryland is a devastating experience. You can lose your liberty and rights. We are sometimes asked ‘can police seize your car after an arrest in Maryland?’

Many defendants are surprised to learn the police can seize your car after an arrest in Maryland through a process called asset forfeiture. This is not necessarily a temporary measure. Asset forfeiture is a civil process separate from the case against you. Defendants may lose their vehicles permanently even if the case is dropped or they end up acquitted.

Baltimore criminal defense lawyer Randolph Rice has helped people from across Maryland fight for their cars and other belongings as well as their liberty. Here he outlines the process.

What is Civil Forfeiture in Maryland?

Civil forfeiture is the process in which a court transfers the ownership of property to the state, federal or local government. This is a civil action as opposed to a criminal action, although criminal charges usually trigger the process. Asset forfeiture or civil forfeiture is not intended to punish the accused. It’s most commonly used in connection with drug offenses but can extend to other accessories and equipment and even real property.

The property that can be seized under civil asset forfeiture is usually:

  • Cars allegedly used in the transportation and supply of drugs or other drug crimes;
  • The drugs themselves;
  • Property used in the process such as materials, products, equipment, boats, and planes.
  • Money directly linked to a crime or illegal drug distribution;
  • Real property such as homes or land.

Under What Authority Can Police Seize Your Car After an Arrest in Maryland?

The government can seize your property under state or federal law. Under 18 U.S. Code § 983, the federal government is required to send written notice to the interested parties as soon as practicable, and never more than 60 days after the property is seized.

No notice is required if, before the 60-day period is up, the federal government files a civil judicial forfeiture action against the property and gives notice of the action as required by law.

Maryland’s law allowing the police to seize property is outlined in Titles 12 and 13 of the Maryland Code of Criminal Procedure. Title 12 sets set out the forfeiture law in drug-related crimes. Title 13 applies to non-drug related crimes. The state can seize your property if it believes it is directly or indirectly related to a crime. However, the powers of civil forfeiture go beyond drugs and weapons to include cars, boars, and other materials.

Does the Government Require Permission to Take Your Car?

People whose cars or other stuff is taken post-arrest, are often amazed to find out the government does not need permission to take belongings.

Under Title 12, a judge must sign a seizure warrant for the car or other property before the police take property. In certain circumstances, property can be seized without a warrant.  These circumstances include:

  1. Police seize property after an arrest or a search carried out under a search warrant.
  2. The property taken was already in the state’s possession.
  3. The seizure was made under an administrative inspection warrant. For instance, an inspector with the authority to search a home may be looking for a code violation.
  4. The property taken was meant to be already in the State’s possession following a previous ruling;
  5. Probable cause exists that the property in question is a danger to public health;
  6. Probable cause exists to believe the property has been used illegally.

If Police Seize Your Car After an Arrest in Maryland, When Will You Know?

If police take your property, the authorities who took it are required by law to send information about seized property to the owner within 30 days, if they know the owner’s identity.

This notice must be sent by first-class mail. It must inform the owner of:

  • The location and description of the property that was seized; and
  • Contact information and the names of an office or individual  that will provide further information, including how property can be returned to the owner.

Can Your Car be Taken Away if You Are Cleared of a Crime in Maryland?

Defendants fail to realize the government may be able to keep your car even if you are cleared of a crime or get a crime expunged in Maryland.

In cases not related to drug activity, the government can bring a forfeiture case even if the property owner is not charged or if charges are dropped;

When seizures relate to drug activity, the government can only forfeit your goods if you are charged with a violation of drug law. If the property owner is not charged within 90 days, the property must be returned immediately to its owner.

Updates to the Maryland Civil Forfeiture Law

Maryland’s civil forfeiture law was overhauled in 2016 following serious concerns about the process.

The reform was intended to make the civil forfeiture process in Maryland more transparent and to raise the standard of proof needed to take away property like motor vehicles. The new law:

  • Raised the standard of proof. There now needs to be “clear and convincing evidence” of a link to crime to take property.
  • Requires a criminal conviction to take away an owner’s principal family home;
  • Set up new reporting requirements for seizures and forfeitures. The agencies must highlight how they will use the forfeiture funds, and whether or not criminal charges or convictions are forthcoming.
  • Highlights the race and gender of property owners hit by a seizure;
  • Repealed a provision that allowed money to be taken in drug possession cases
  • Required the owners of the property be given a receipt when their property is taken;
  • Set up new and stricter deadlines for the filing of forfeiture complaints.
  • Prevented the transfer of cash taken to federal agencies, unless more than $50,000 is seized or if the transfer follows a federal warrant.
  • Directs a fifth of forfeiture proceeds from the general fund to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to finance education and drug treatment programs.

The reforms were enacted after a 2015 report by the Institute for Justice found law enforcement agencies in Maryland collected more than $80 million from the U.S. Department of Justice in equitable-sharing funds.

What Should You Do if the Police Seize Your Car After an Arrest in Maryland?

When a complaint is filed with the court, it must be served on the owner of the property or another interested party within 20 days after filing.

If the owner cannot be found, the notice of service and the complaint is posted at the courthouse.

If you do nothing, your car or other property will be taken away. Alternatively, the owner can file an “answer to the complaint.” Filing an answer allows the owner of the property to contest the complaint and put forward reasons why the government should not be able to keep the property. The answer must be filed within 30 days.

You will get a chance to dispute the forfeiture at a forfeiture hearing in the court where the complaint was filed

Talk to a Baltimore Criminal Defense Lawyer if Your Car is Seized

If the authorities file a complaint to take your vehicle, you should talk to our criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. It’s important to act quickly in these cases. The government does not have to prove you committed a crime beyond all reasonable doubt – the criminal burden of proof – to take your property. It’s often difficult to make a case to keep your car or other property. Hire a lawyer to fight on your behalf. Criminal defense attorney Randolph Rice has worked in the criminal and civil courts for decades. Please call him as soon as possible at (410) 431-0911.