3 Times Asset Forfeiture Went Too Far

When you purchase anything—whether it’s as big as a house or as small as a laptop—you expect it to be yours forever. After all, the U.S. Constitution ensures that your property is protected. Only guilty people should have their assets taken away.

Unfortunately, the property rights law is more complicated than that. The government can seize property in a process called asset forfeiture, and it doesn’t always happen to people who committed a crime.

In these cases, the government seized assets that were eventually returned to their owners thanks to knowledgeable attorneys. 

Case 1: Innocent Computer Store Owner

Frank Ranelli owned a business in Alabama called Far Computers, where he did both repairs and sales.

Unexpectedly, Police officers from Homewood and Mountain Brook came to Ranelli’s store and took all of the computers. Frank was repairing most of those computers and didn’t own them. They belonged to the customers who took them in for repair.

Ranelli was accused of buying and receiving stolen computers. The person who pointed the fingers at Ranelli for this crime was a man the police caught breaking into homes. The police told this man if he didn’t have any information to give them, he would go to jail. So he told the police a false story about Ranelli.

This man sold items to the computer store owner before, but he told Ranelli the items belonged to him and were not stolen. When Ranelli purchased the items, he complied with local laws by taking ID and logging the items into a journal. However, in the man’s story, Ranelli was getting tractors full of stolen computers delivered to the back of his store, which wasn’t true.

After Ranelli’s assets were taken, he provided proof that all the computers were obtained legally. Officials had nothing to charge him with, but that doesn’t mean the government was going to return his assets anytime soon.

The forfeiture happened in 2010. Ranelli said he finally got about 85% of the assets back plus a settlement, but it took him about 9 years. In that time frame, some of his customers were able to get the computers back, but he did not get paid for the repairs he did for them.

Case 2: Wife of Perpetrator Punished for His Crime

In 1988, a Michigan man named John Bennis was caught with a sex worker in a Pontiac sedan. He was arrested and later convicted of gross indecency.

The state sued him and his wife Tina to declare the car a public nuisance, so the government could take it. 

There is a big problem with the state taking the car, and it was the basis of Tina’s case. She was part owner of the vehicle. She wasn’t the one who was convicted. In fact, she had no idea that any illegal activity was happening in her car. 

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, but the justices sided with the state. They said that her defense of not knowing about the crime being committed on her property—commonly called the innocent owner defense—wasn’t constitutionally protected. 

Case 3: A Case Won by Brown, Bradshaw & Moffat

When Justin Peck was convicted of running an illegal business, part of his punishment was land being forfeited to the government. However, it didn’t belong to him. It belonged to his friend.

Making matters more complicated, the friend couldn’t actually challenge the forfeiture. It was a federal criminal case, and as such, the only two parties that could participate in it were the government and the defendant. This friend was neither, so there was nothing he could do.

His attorney James C. Bradshaw took the case without a formal challenge.

The judge vacated the forfeiture, ruling that because the land never belonged to the defendant, the government couldn’t keep it any longer.

If you ever find yourself in a situation where your assets were wrongfully taken, the attorneys at Brown, Bradshaw & Moffat would love to help you. Please give us a call at (801) 532-5297 to schedule a consultation.

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