St. Louis police are giving back several years worth of seized cash and property that should have been returned to their owners – but piled up inside headquarters instead, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Officers seize cash and property every day in the course of their work. Items seized as evidence of crimes, or found when ownership is unknown, are stored in the property custody unit. Money seized during an arrest and deemed to be the fruit of illegal activity is sent to the asset-forfeiture unit, and ultimately can be used to help fund schools.
Breakdowns in both units caused some property to accumulate when it should have been returned. For years, city prosecutors have seldom filed forfeiture suits to keep what police seized. Police still sometimes held onto the money, even in cases in which no criminal charges were issued. Now the department is tracking down the owners of the cash and paying them back with interest. Several criminal defense attorneys confirmed that clients received letters from the department seeking to return money. Some said it was a welcome change after years of hearing clients complain of being stonewalled by the police. A criminal defense lawyer said letters promising a return of clients’ money started arriving shortly after the Post-Dispatch began reporting on the department’s ties with a company that had a lucrative contract to tow and impound cars. The newspaper’s investigation found that police officers impounded cars connected to nearly any type of felony – from burglary to resisting arrest – for asset forfeiture. They did so for years, even though prosecutors said they wouldn’t pursue the cases.