After more than two years, Matt Lee won back his $2,400 taken from him through civil forfeiture in July, 2011 by the sheriff department in Humboldt County, Nev. As part of the agreement, he had to sign a form, releasing Humboldt County Sheriff department of any liability. (Gabe Silverman/The Washington Post)

THE POLICE can take your car and everything in it — including the cash you are transporting to buy a used truck, a fixer-upper house or equipment for your restaurant — even if you’re not guilty of any crime. Getting your property back can take months and cost thousands. Sometimes authorities will offer to give those who complain half their money back, which makes little sense if the cash is free from association with a serious crime — or if it isn’t.

If all of that seems like it couldn’t possibly happen in the United States, welcome to the weird legal backroads of civil forfeiture. A Post three-part investigation this week showed that law enforcement officers deploy this extraordinary power across the country, too often against innocent people, with the assistance and encouragement of the federal government.

Civil forfeiture policies are in place to combat drug rings and other organized crime. If law enforcement officials believe that property — cars, homes or, especially, cash — is connected to criminal activity, they can take it. But officers’ pretexts can be shockingly thin: cars that have tinted windows, cars that are too clean, cars that are too dirty, drivers who are too nervous, the presence of energy drinks and so forth. Rightful owners have to hire lawyers and prove that the cash came from legitimate savings and not from a drug smuggler. That takes time and often comes in the form of a settlement in which victims must promise not to sue.

Local police departments have discovered that they can claim revenue and glory by seizing large amounts of property from motorists. Unsurprisingly, reporters have been turning up anecdotal accounts of police abuse. The New Yorker last year detailed how overzealous officials in Tenaha, Tex., shook down out-of-state drivers by, among other things, threatening to take their children away from them, then funneled the confiscated cash into officer bonuses and popcorn machines.

Though state laws sanction much of this, the federal government helped create a nationwide forfeiture bonanza. If a local police department confiscates property on behalf of the feds, it gets a large slice of the value back through a program known as “equitable sharing.” The Post’s Robert O’Harrow Jr., Michael Sallah and Steven Rich found that, through the program, authorities have made 61,998 cash seizures without search warrants or indictments since 9/11. They raked in $2.5 billion, in large part through confiscating relatively small amounts.

“Hundreds of state and local departments and drug task forces appear to rely on seized cash, despite a federal ban on [using] the money to pay salaries or otherwise support budgets,” The Post reported, adding that “298 departments and 210 task forces have seized the equivalent of 20 percent or more of their annual budgets since 2008.”

Congress and state governments should demand that confiscated money not be used to fund police operations, and they should develop policies to limit the application of civil forfeiture to the kingpins it was supposed to target.