Our nation has become fascinated with celebrities: Their hair, their clothes and above all their fabulous jewelry. The actress Rihanna made stunning appearances at parties and awards ceremonies wearing unforgettable jewelry borrowed from famous jewelers.

On the night of her alleged attack by Chris Brown, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) retained custody of the jewelry she was wearing. Everyone seems to want the jewelry to go back from where it came, everyone, that is, except the LAPD. Even her lawyer's pleas for the jewelry to be returned have not been successful.

No Guarantees Your Seized Property Will be Returned

You've probably heard of "the evidence room" at a police department, but few people have actually been there. Imagine a vast warehouse with all types of objects inside - solids, liquids, vegetables, minerals, medicine, weapons and contraband - none with a definite return date.

The seizure of your property after an arrest may seem unfair, especially because there are laws regarding the sanctity of private property and penalties for taking someone's property without their consent. Before returning seized property, police will weigh the public interest in safety and allowing police to conduct criminal investigations versus your interest in safeguarding and possessing your property.

The length of time police can keep property taken for use in a criminal investigation is highly unpredictable. It may be three years or more that police keep your property in custody if it contains evidence which can't be replicated or identified by photograph. Each state varies as to the statute of limitations for different criminal offenses. If you are charged with a crime, your property might be kept even longer until the criminal case is concluded.

Keep Written Records of Property Taken

Generally, it's easier for you to retrieve your property taken into police custody when it can be sufficiently documented by a photograph. However, where laboratory testing must be done on the property (i.e., to test for fingerprints, DNA, the presence of chemicals or blood, etc.), it's unlikely that the property will be returned until the criminal case is concluded.

Other types of property taken may be of no help to a criminal investigation, but are of significant value to you. To provide additional verification when seeking their return, ask to be allowed to photograph the items before they are taken. As soon as possible after an arrest, you should document the following information about the property taken:

  • The type and quantity of items
  • Estimated value
  • Serial numbers
  • Any identifying marks
  • A description

Legal Recourse May Be Pursued But Is Limited

If you've been charged with a crime, it's not likely that the police will return your property until the prosecution of your case. If you're a victim or witness to a crime, it's more likely that police will return your property upon request, unless the items themselves are essential evidence that the prosecutor needs to prove the case.

Many counties have in place a Victim/Witness Assistance Program which can help you try to get your property back. Your attorney can also try to help you get your property back if you are charged with a crime.

An attorney can bring a formal, written request seeking the return of your property before the judge. The attorney might argue, for example, that photographs of your property will be sufficient and that the police and prosecutor have no need for the actual property. The prosecutor might respond that the criminal investigation and prosecution might be compromised if the property is released.

Unfortunately, there is no absolute guarantee that your property will ever be returned to you intact and in time for you to preserve its value. For your attorney to make the best possible arguments on your behalf, it's important for you to document all details about your property, and all reasons that you need it returned.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Will homeowners' insurance coverage apply to items seized in a criminal investigation if the property isn't returned within a reasonable time?
  • In general, are law enforcement authorities cooperative about returning property if photos or other records about the property are sufficient for evidence needed in a case?
  • Can someone sue the government if property is kept without good reason? Can someone sue to get the property back, along with money damages?

Tagged as: Criminal Law, property recovery, criminal lawyer