We know that police and government are not liable for damage caused in the course of warranted searches. We also know that people who are not suspected of any crime can have their property searched and seized pursuant to a warrant.

Are there any enumerated rights to the speedy return of property seized for evidence, or for compensation when police detain property for so long that the owner incurs damages?

As an increasingly common example: Police can seize entire computer systems. There are all sorts of constitutionally-derived safeguards to ensure that the seizure and search are "proper." But I can't find any law or custom pertaining to how long the police can keep a computer, phone, or data storage device. And I have heard that they will routinely keep such items for weeks or months. When the computer(s) seized are someone's work machines then that person not only loses time and money to replace them, but may also incur damages due to the inability to access data that wasn't backed up offsite.

(Why the police do this with information systems is bewildering to a techie with some IS security background like me. Until I was shown some real-life cases to the contrary, my understanding was that SOP for data drives is to get them duplicated immediately. At that point a duplicate could certainly be returned to the owner without imperiling the search of the data, or its use as evidence.)

The indefinite detention of movable property seems incongruous with the treatment afforded to dwellings. E.g., I have never heard of a residence being seized for search and cordoned off for the duration of an investigation and prosecution. Instead, CSI is brought in for at most a few days, and once they decide they've done their job it's opened back up to the owner.

  • Not backing up data off-site is a problem in itself. If you incur damages due to not having a backup, you alone are to blame.
    – vsz
    Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 4:05
  • @vsz - Do you believe that assertion is consistent with the Constitution? Of what other property is one expected to keep an off-site backup as insurance against "reasonable search and seizure?"
    – feetwet
    Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 12:05
  • No, I mean in general it is recommended to have backups as there are lots of different ways one can lose data. I wasn't saying you are legally to blame.
    – vsz
    Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 12:33

1 Answer 1


Everything I've found so far suggests the answer is "the government can keep your property as long as it thinks it should." The following explanation is typical:

If your property is being held as evidence, the property clerk will require a release from the district attorney, as well as a voucher and proper identification for you or your claimant. A release is a short letter from the district attorney stating that he does not need the property as evidence. You can obtain a release directly from the district attorney while your criminal case is pending or when it is over. However, although your case is no longer in court, there may be a long delay in obtaining a release if the case is being appealed, reheard by a grand jury or adjourned in contemplation of dismissal (ACD). In these cases, ask your attorney if an earlier property release can be arranged. The district attorney must respond in writing to your request for a release within 15 days. If you are denied a release, you are entitled to a written explanation of why your property is being held and review of an unfavorable decision by a supervising district attorney. The most common reasons for not releasing property are that the case is not completely over, the property is contraband, or there is an ongoing criminal investigation about its source.

In the case of a car impounded as evidence, the prosecutor must obtain an order from a judge authorizing impoundment for that reason. A person has the right to a hearing in criminal court to challenge such an order.

It does seem odd that cars get special treatment, but there is no requirement that copies of data (that are not contraband) be returned immediately. Perhaps the law on this has yet to join the Information Age. (And cloud backups already obviate it to a large extent.)

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