When the police seize property as evidence, they can hold the property without filing charges until the applicable statute of limitations expires. In Arizona, the general statute of limitations is 7 years for felonies, 1 year for misdemeanors, and 6 months for petty offenses, though there are some exceptions (e.g. there’s no statute of limitations for murder or sexual assault charges). As long as the property in question isn’t contraband, you should have your property returned once the statute of limitations expires.
You can file a request to have your property returned before the statute of limitations expires, but it can be challenging if the police are uncooperative. Your best bet is to hire an attorney who can work with the court to secure the release of your property.
When Can the Police Seize Your Property?
There are four situations where the police can seize and hold private property:
1. Safe Keeping
When the police make an arrest, they may seize valuable items like your phone, tablet, jewelry, or money to protect your property from loss or theft. This tends to happen with traffic arrests when the police impound the car, so the items in the car aren’t lost or stolen during transit or while in the impound lot. The police will simply remove any expensive items during the inventory process, and will return them to you when you are discharged from the police station (assuming charges aren’t filed against you).
When the police come across property that was used or obtained during the commission of a crime, they can seize, hold, and even sell the property if they can prove the criminal connection. Most forfeiture cases in Arizona involve money, vehicles, cell phones, and computers.
An item is considered contraband if it’s a crime to have it in the first place. Some common examples include counterfeit property, illicit weapons, unlicensed firearms, illicit drugs, and drug paraphernalia. Police will typically hold onto contraband items as evidence, then destroy them at the conclusion of the case (or when the statute of limitations expires).
Property that the district attorney needs to prosecute a criminal case may be held as evidence. A defense attorney may submit a request to reclaim property held as evidence before charges are filed or while the case is pending, but the general rule is to hold onto evidence until the case is over or the statute of appeals expires. If the case is appealed by either party, the police may hold on to the evidence until the appeals process is complete.
When the police seize property, they’re required to issue a receipt or inventory list. This document should identify the officer(s) involved, the date of seizure, and an itemized list of the property. It’s critical to keep this document in a safe place, as you’ll need this to get your property back in a timely manner.
How to Reclaim Your Property From the Police
The process and timeline for retrieving your property from the police depends on why the property was seized. Property that’s held for safe keeping is the easiest to retrieve, as you should automatically get this back when you are discharged from the police station. In some cases, you may need to make an appointment to retrieve them from the property office, but this usually takes place the next day.
When property is seized as evidence, chances are you won’t get your property back until the case is over, the prosecutor declines to file charges, or the statute of limitations expires. If the prosecutor or police refuse to release your property, your attorney can file a petition for return of property with the court. In rare cases, the court may decide to hold a hearing to decide what to do with your property.
If the police seize your property and the government initiates forfeiture proceedings, you should meet with an attorney as soon as possible. You have a right to contest the forfeiture and request a hearing, but there are deadlines to do so. Failure to respond within a timely manner may result in losing the right to contest the forfeiture.
Challenges with Property Recovery in Arizona
Arizona’s forfeiture laws unfortunately provide more protections for law enforcement than for ordinary citizens. In some cases, forfeited property goes directly to the local law enforcement budget, leaving the city with little incentive to return improperly seized property. The law places the burden of proof on the citizen—not law enforcement—to convince the court that the forfeiture was unlawful. The process can take months or years when law enforcement is uncooperative.
To make matters worse, Arizona law prescribes a punishment for Arizonans who try and fail to recover forfeited property. If you sue to recover property and fail to prove that you own the property and it was improperly seized, you’ll be saddled with the court costs. While the idea behind this rule was to discourage unwarranted property claims that tax city resources, it’s had an unfortunately chilling effect on discouraging people from recovering improperly seized property.
If your property is seized under Arizona forfeiture laws, it’s essential that you work with an experienced criminal defense attorney to recover your property. Not just any attorney will do—it’s best to work with an attorney who has successfully sued for property recovery in your area, and who understands Arizona’s property forfeiture laws. Without expert assistance, the chances of recovering your property are unfortunately low.
What to Do With an Offer to Withhold Charges in Return for Your Cooperation
In some cases, the police may offer to postpone filing charges against you and/or return your property in return for your cooperation as a witness or informant. You should never agree to such a deal without first consulting an attorney. If your attorney believes a deal is in your best interests, he or she can draft a contract to formalize the police’s offer in writing. Do not agree to a verbal commitment with the police or prosecutor, as you cannot enforce a verbal commitment and there is no guarantee that the police or prosecutor won’t eventually file charges against you.
Get Help Recovering Improperly Seized Property in Arizona
If your property is seized under Arizona forfeiture laws, it’s essential that you work with an experienced criminal defense attorney to recover your property. Not just any attorney will do—it’s best to work with an attorney who has successfully sued for property recovery in your area, and who understands Arizona’s property forfeiture laws. Without expert assistance, the chances of recovering your property are unfortunately low
Call the JacksonWhite Criminal Law team at (480) 467-4370 to discuss your case today.