The Amnesty Box

Berry Law’s Nebraska criminal defense attorneys often get inquiries from people who say, “I’m in possession of something illegal. What do I do with it?” The military has a simple solution for this type of problem: In the Army, if someone fails to turn in ammunition after firing a weapon at the range, he or she can put the ammunition into an amnesty box, no questions asked. In other words, the Army had the foresight to assume that people may make the honest mistake of failing to turn in ammunition or might find it and want to dispose of it. The Army has put together similar programs in countries like Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, where civilians can turn in weapons and ammunition to the U.S. Military with no questions asked as to whether those weapons came from organizations that oppose the United States. The bottom line is this: The Department of Defense took the position that it’s more important to keep contraband and dangerous items away from the public than it is to prosecute people for possessing them. The net result was that the military received huge caches of machine guns, land mines, artillery shells, and other explosive devices that may have otherwise ended up in the hands of the enemy.

Unfortunately, there is no such amnesty box for illegal drugs, child pornography, or other contraband in civilian life.

There are several scenarios in which innocent people come across contraband and don’t know the correct action to take. On one hand, they know it is illegal to possess the contraband, but on the other hand, they do not want to destroy evidence, as that can lead to criminal charges like obstruction of justice. No one wants to tamper with evidence that could be used in a criminal prosecution.

There are no easy solutions to this dilemma. You cannot possess illegal contraband, but will you be prosecuted if you turn it over to the police?

One Nebraska criminal defense attorney who learned that his client was in possession of contraband had the client put the contraband in his conference room and then called the police. The attorney told the authorities that he had contraband in his conference room, but due to the attorney-client privilege, he could not disclose any further information.

Fortunately for the lawyer, the police seized the contraband without asking questions. However, a sneaky prosecutor could argue that the attorney was in violation of the law for knowingly possessing the contraband in his office even though he was attempting to turn it over to law enforcement.

Criminal defense attorneys generally do not want their clients to bring contraband into their office because it creates all sorts of problems. A criminal defense lawyer cannot destroy evidence, nor can he or she advise a client to destroy evidence. Furthermore, an attorney does not want to have the responsibility of safeguarding the client’s property, especially if that property is illegal to possess. In short, the attorney does not want the liability associated with safeguarding illegal contraband or legitimate personal property.

On occasion, someone affected by contraband is wholly innocent of the crime, but has a relative who left contraband at his or her home. For example, an elderly couple allows their son to live in their spare bedroom for several months. When he leaves, they find a bag filled with a powdery substance hidden under a loose floorboard. What do they do? They suspect the substance is drugs, and they know it is against the law to possess it, but they fear that it would be against the law to destroy or discard the bag, as it may be evidence of a crime. Furthermore, the couple is placed in a moral dilemma because while they believe the powdery substance belongs to their son, they don’t want to turn him in for a crime. They don’t want to see him face criminal charges. They simply do not know what to do.

In another instance, a woman learns that her ex-husband has been arrested for possession of child pornography. She still has the computer that he used when they were married. She is concerned that there may be child pornography on the computer, but she does not want the government to take it because the hard drive contains her financial records and family photos. She’s afraid to look through the computer for child pornography because she simply does not want to know. She is also afraid because she doesn’t want to be in violation of the law for possessing it. She wonders if she could take the computer to her local computer store and have them delete anything that could possibly be child pornography, but she knows that doing so might be destroying evidence.

In both of the instances above, there are no easy answers. Often, different criminal defense attorneys throughout Nebraska will give different answers as to what may or may not be legal and ethical under these fact patterns.

The simple solution to these problems would be an amnesty box just like those provided by the Army, where people can dispose of contraband with no questions asked. An amnesty box would prevent people from possessing things they’re not supposed to possess without the fear of being prosecuted or getting someone else prosecuted for turning it in.

For better or for worse, most people who find themselves in possession of illegal contraband contact criminal defense attorneys and hope the defense attorney will act as an amnesty box. While most criminal defense attorneys do not want to take possession of any contraband, they may sometimes contact the prosecutor or investigator and explain the situation without revealing the client’s identity.

In short, there is no clear solution to the unintended possession of contraband problem. Each matter must be handled on a case-by-case basis. The best solution is to avoid putting yourself in a position where you are going to be in the vicinity of any illegal contraband, but sometimes things happen beyond our control. In those cases, contacting a criminal defense lawyer can be useful in determining the best course of action to take.

While most people think about calling a criminal defense lawyer after they or a loved one has been arrested, it’s possible to avoid stress and frustration by paying a criminal defense attorney to worry for them and figure out how to best proceed in these kinds of tenuous situations in which the line between legal and illegal is crossed by someone else.

If you or a loved one is in trouble with the law for possession of illegal substances, please call the Berry Lawat (402) 466-8444 for a free consultation. Our experienced team of lawyers is ready to help you.

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