Police departments confiscate an enormous amount of property during the normal course of investigations and arrests. Some of the property becomes the property of the state through legal forfeiture proceedings, while other property becomes the state's property because the owner never reclaims it and it is eventually considered abandoned property. In order to get rid of the property that accumulates over time, law enforcement agencies often hold a public police auction with the proceeds going to support further law enforcement efforts.
When a person is arrested, all of his or her personal belongings must be placed into the property room at the police station. In addition, if the person was arrested while driving, then the vehicle is often impounded. Evidence may also be collected from a person's vehicle, home, or business, and held until a case is adjudicated. Evidence may be anything from documents to contraband, to computers or electronic equipment. All of this property may wind up belonging to the state or federal government over time and therefore be available for purchase through a police auction.
Property that was held as evidence but ultimately released when the case terminates may never be claimed by the defendant and therefore is considered abandoned property. The same frequently happens with vehicles that are impounded. In some cases, the towing and storage fees are more than the defendant can afford to pay and therefore the vehicle is never claimed.
Forfeit property follows a different route in order to become the property of the government. A civil lawsuit separate from the criminal charges is filed claiming that the property was purchased with the proceeds of illegal activities. If the lawsuit is successful, then the property is legally forfeit to the government and eligible for police auction.
How often a police auction is held depends on the jurisdiction. In larger metropolitan areas, auctions may be held as often as once a month. In smaller areas, a police auction may only be held once every few months or yearly. Notice of upcoming auctions can generally be found on the law enforcement's website or by calling the agency. Police auctions are open to the public, although preregistration may be required.
The auction is held in much the same way than any auction is conducted. Items are bid on by the participants with the high bidder winning the item. At most police auctions, payment is due in cash or guaranteed funds at the time of the auction; however, for large ticket items, such as vehicles or boats, the winning bidder may have 24 to 48 hours to arrange for payment.