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What happens to money seized by the police in the UK?

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If you are in the unfortunate position of having the police seize money from you, that does rightfully belong to you, you – understandably – may be feeling frustrated. You might be questioning what your rights are and how you can apply for the return of the money. Perhaps you are wondering when the police can lawfully seize a person’s money, and what the police do with it once it has been taken. This article aims to answer your questions. It looks at when the police can seize someone’s money in the UK and whether there are any limits on the amount that can be seized and how long it can be kept. It also explores the circumstances in which money that has been seized can be returned to you, and what happens to the money if it is not eventually returned to you. When can the police seize someone’s money in the UK?

The Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (POCA) sets out the circumstances under which money can be seized by the police. Section 294 states that cash may be seized by police officers or other law enforcement officials such as officers from Revenue and Customs and accredited financial investigators. The seizure of cash is permitted where the officer has reasonable grounds to believe that the property is:

  • recoverable property i.e. property obtained through unlawful conduct; or
  • intended by any person for use in unlawful conduct.

To fall under this provision, the cash must be at least £1000. This amount is set out in the Code of Practice for the recovery of cash issued under POCA. This sets out the behaviour that is expected of officers exercising their powers under POCA. Searches with a view to seizure of cash under POCA are only lawful where:

  • The officer has lawful authority to be present under legislative powers or at the invitation of the owner.
  • POCA does not give officers the power to force entry.
  • POCA does not give officers the authority to require a person to undergo an intimate or strip search.
  • The search must comply with the requirements of human rights law, namely obliging the officer not to make an unwarranted interference with the family and private life of citizens.
  • The basis for believing that the cash falls under the provisions of POCA must come from accurate and up to date intelligence. It should not be based on suspicion arising from purely personal factors linked to the defendant such as their race or ethnic background.
  • As is always the case with the police, force may only be used by officers where this is reasonable and proportionate.
  • An officer must be particularly careful in cases where the person being searched appears to be vulnerable e.g. they appear to have a mental or physical disability, or a juvenile.

Once the cash has been seized, the officer must apply to the Magistrate’s Court within 48 hours to detain the cash. This time period does not include weekends or public holidays. The Magistrate’s Court can extend the time period for the detention of cash for six months under the first order, and then up to two years by a subsequent order made before the expiry of the first order. During this time period, it is likely that any linked criminal proceedings against the defendant will take place.

Examples of cash that could be seized under this provision include:

  • Money earned through drug trafficking or the sale of other unlawful goods
  • Cash that has been stolen during a burglary or unlawfully taken from a family member
  • Legitimate income that has not been taxed – say, for example, if a builder earns cash in hand and they are above the income tax threshold, but do not submit a tax return
  • Money in the possession of the defendant as a consequence of evasion of VAT
  • Money in the possession of the defendant due to evasion of a wide range of import and export prohibitions and restrictions

How much money can the police seize from someone in the UK?

There is no upper limit on the amount of cash or other money that the police can seize under POCA. It must, however, be at least £1000. Where the police believe that part of a larger amount of cash may fall under the provisions of Section 294 POCA and it is not practicable to separate it, they are authorised to seize the full amount of cash initially. However, the portion of the cash that is not believed to be proceeds of crime must later be returned to its owner.

In addition to cash, the police can seize money that is held in a bank or building society. To do this, the police would apply for a freezing order under Section 303ZA POCA. Such an order prevents the account holder from making deposits, transfers, and withdrawals to or from the account. If the police or court conclude that the money in the account is not a proceed of crime, the freezing order will be removed so that the defendant can access their bank account again.

How long can police keep seized money?

POCA allows the police to detain the cash without a court order for up to 48 hours, not including weekends or public holidays. If the police wish to detain the cash for more than 48 hours, they must apply for a court order. The Magistrate’s Court can authorise the detention of cash for up to six months by its first court order, then up to two years in total by a second court order.

According to Section 296 POCA, where cash is detained for more than 48 hours, it should be placed in an interest bearing account at the first opportunity. The interest accruing on the cash must be added to it when it is forfeited or released. Where the police have seized a sum of cash, which is a mixture of cash that they suspect is the proceeds of crime, and cash that is not a proceed of crime, only the cash that is under suspicion should be paid into the interest bearing account. The rest of the cash must be released. Can you get seized money back?

The police may return your money to you if they later conclude that it is not a proceed of crime and detention of it can no longer be justified. Alternatively, you can apply to the Magistrate’s Court for the cash to be returned to you. You will need to show, on the balance of probabilities, that the conditions under Section 295 POCA do not apply i.e. the money is not recoverable property or intended for unlawful use. The wording of such an application is likely to be important, particularly if you are under suspicion of criminal activity. To ensure the best possible outcome, you may find it helpful to instruct a solicitor to assist you with this application.

Do the police keep money that has been seized?

Where the police or other law enforcement do not intend to return the money to the person that they seized it from, they can apply for it to be forfeited. Forfeiture means the permanent removal of an asset from a person by the court as a penalty for wrong-doing.

Where the seizure is linked to criminal proceedings – for example, the police have seized cash that is believed to be the proceeds of handling stolen goods – the police will usually wait for the conclusion of criminal proceedings before making a forfeiture application.

No conviction is required for the forfeiture of cash. The Magistrate’s Court must be convinced that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the cash is a proceed of crime i.e. it is recoverable property or intended for use in unlawful conduct. The civil standard of proof is applied i.e. on the balance of probabilities. This means that even where the defendant is acquitted, (because the prosecution has not succeeded in satisfying the criminal burden of proof by proving beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty) their money could still be forfeited because of the lower standard of proof.

With all this in mind, you may be asking where does forfeited money go? Where cash is forfeited, half of the funds go to the police and the other half of the funds go the Home Office. In some cases, the judge can allocate a percentage of the seized funds to the victim as compensation. There have also been schemes that allocate forfeited funds to community programmes.

Where to get further help

If your cash or other property has been seized by the police, obtain advice from a solicitor without delay. At Stuart Miller Solicitors, our expert team will give you timely and realistic advice in respect of the police’s actions, and outline your options for attempting to secure the return of the cash. Our criminal defence solicitors can also represent you in any associated criminal proceedings. Knowing where you stand will help you get the best possible outcome and ultimately to move on with your life. Contact us today to find out how we can help.

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