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Consider this recent ruling: U.S. Supreme Court rules against police over motorcycle search

In it, the court ruled that the police unlawfully searched a stolen motorcycle parked on private property in Virginia because they did not have a court-approved warrant.

The case involved a stolen motorcycle that was covered by a tarp and was parked on private property next to a house in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The man who stole the motorcycle was convicted for receiving stolen property.

Now, in this case, SCOTUS returned the case to a lower court, which will allow the police to argue exigent circumstances, or maybe rule that there were alternative measures that the police could have done.

So, suppose the court rules completely against the police. Barring no other evidence, the case is thrown out, the man's conviction is overturned, and he's free.

What happens to the bike? Is it returned to the person who stole it, or is it returned to the original owner on its title?

In this question...

Evidence found during police search of incorrect address listed on search warrant

There is discussion that the police do not have to return "contraband". So, maybe that answers my question - but I don't know the legal definition of contraband. Stolen property may be contraband (having a motorcycle certainly isn't) but the police can't show that the motorcycle was stolen, because legally, they can't use any evidence they have of it (fruit of the poisoned tree).

I guess if the cops keep the motorcycle, and the man then tried to claim it, they could get him for receiving stolen property again (new case), but the man who owns it probably wants his bike back. So that doesn't seem like a viable option.

How does this work?

  • Not being convicted of a crime (or having the conviction overturned on a technicality) doesn't mean you can keep the fruits of that crime. Worst case this could be turned into a civil suit where the court has a lesser "burden of proof". I believe (although not sure what statues agree with me) that the property would be returned to the last person who can prove legal ownership (which may or may not be the person who's name is on the title). – Ron Beyer May 29 '18 at 21:49
  • @RonBeyer the court has no burden of proof. – phoog May 30 '18 at 6:42
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Generally speaking, the police will not return property known to be stolen to someone other than the owner of the property, even if it is illegally seized in a search that violates the 4th Amendment.

While stolen property is not strictly speaking, contraband, it also isn't something that the person who would seek its return would be entitled to reclaim.

This is particularly true when, in a circumstance like this where the motorcycle's ownership can be confirmed with a VIN number on file with a government agency linking the VIN number to the true owner of the vehicle, so the fact that it is stolen can be confirmed with great certainty.

If the police do not return the property voluntarily, which they would not do, the person in possession of it would have to bring a suit for possession against the police who are in possession of it.

In the face of a civil lawsuit to regain custody of the property from the police after they failed to return it, the police could insist that the true owner be joined to the action and could also raise the issue of unclean hands or similar defenses.

A court filing claiming property known to be stolen by someone who is not the true owner would also provide evidence of the stolen property charge that would probably not be tainted "fruit of the poisonous tree" and instead, would be treated as an independent confession to the crime that was dismissed for lack of evidence after the original seizure under the 4th Amendment exclusionary rule.

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Even if the person is not guilty of the crime of theft, they are liable for the tort of conversion if they try to keep property that doesn’t belong to them. This is not a police matter - it is for the owner to seek recovery of their property through a civil suit.

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