May 2

How to Navigate Police Auctions 101


Last Updated on February 2, 2023

Police departments, just like other government departments, will from time to time dispose of assets that are no longer needed. When departments have accumulated a sufficient amount of unused assets, they auction them off. That’s when you come in. Here’s how to navigate police auctions 101.

Police departments auction off vehicle fleets when the fleets get upgraded and equipment that is legal for civilian use.  Police departments also sell items seized from people as part of department operation. The items could have been removed from an establishment by police officers or have been brought into the station by someone involved with a case. 

The illegally acquired and unwanted 

Assets like jewelry, cars, and furniture become property of the state in one of two ways. Either an asset has been deemed illegally acquired and the state takes ownership of it, or the asset was left in the possession of the police and the owner didn’t pick it up within a predetermined time frame. The primary means is called legal forfeiture and the latter is called abandoned property. 

In order for an asset to be forfeit to the state, a civil lawsuit needs to be filed and successful at demonstrating the asset was purchased with money gained from illegal activities. Then the asset is awarded to the state. 

There are several reasons people don’t pick up property left at police stations. The asset could have been damaged during criminal activity or police operations. Evidence can be held for a long time and once released, may no longer have value to the owner. Also, when vehicles are impounded, the towing and storage fees associated with reclaiming the vehicle can be greater than the owner is willing to pay. They may just decide that discarding the asset is better than reclaiming. 

Police departments often partner with auction companies to divest of their unwanted items. Larger police departments will hold regular in-person auctions, sometimes monthly. Smaller departments will hold them less frequently, sometimes only annually. As people have made more purchases online and COVID measures shutting down in-person events for nearly two years, police departments have started divesting items strictly through online auctions. 

Police Auction Commodities

Police Auctions 101 - Police Auction Commodities

You can find diverse categories of items available at online police auctions including:

  • Cars – police, abandoned and forfeited
  • Vehicles – boats, trucks and RVs
  • Sporting and recreational goods – see doos, skis, nets
  • Fine items –  jewelry, antiques, coins, stamps
  • Wine and food
  • Toys, dolls, collectibles, and memorabilia
  • Musical instruments and accessories
  • Equipment – farm, heavy, manufacturing, restaurant, office 
  • Furniture – chairs, tables, couches, desks
  • Computers, tablets, and phones
  • Storage units
  • Real estate

Buying impounded cars

Vehicles can be impounded for numerous reasons. Reasons include leaving the vehicle somewhere illegally, failing to provide a valid driver’s license to an officer, or the vehicle is serving as evidence in a criminal case. The most common reason is due to DUI (driving under the influence). 

Just because a car is impounded, doesn’t mean it won’t get auctioned off. Most of the time, the vehicles get returned to their respective owners. However, if it is determined in a civil case that the vehicle was acquired through illegal means, then it can become property of the state and be auctioned. Likewise, when a vehicle remains unclaimed for a certain period of time, it will be considered abandoned and sold at auction.


Police Auctions 101 - Auction Reputability

You can either purchase a vehicle online or in person. Some vehicles are available to be bid on both online and in person, but some are only available strictly through one channel or the other. 

Determine how comfortable you are making large online purchases. And, determine how far you are willing to travel for an in-person auction. Then find auctions that meet those criteria. 

Whether you search online, in-person, or both, make sure the auction company is reputable. A high rating by the Better Business Bureau, a large number of auctions completed, positive reviews on social media posted by end-users, a time-specific money-back guarantee, and a toll-free support line are all features you want from an auction company. 

Before signing up for any auction, fully understand how it works and the responsibilities of people who place winning bids. 

Risks and benefits

Online auctions provide detailed descriptions and multiple images for buyers, which decreases any purchase risks. They’re also convenient, since you don’t need to travel to a certain place at a certain time. And online auctions allow for some automation. Some allow bidders to set maximum bids for their desired items and you (your profile) will then bid on those items up until the maximum amount, without you even being present. Then you login to your account and see what you purchased or wait for the email from the auction company congratulating you on your successful bids. 

Buying in-person allows you to see parts of the vehicle not shown in the photos, touch them, smell them, and maybe turn on the engine. This reduces the risk of making the purchase because there are less unknowns. You can’t tell from photos whether the car seats are uncomfortable, if there is a foul odor inside the cab, or if the horn makes a god-awful sound. 

You will probably pay significantly less than retail for an impounded vehicle. Police departments aren’t in the business of making money off these unwanted items. Prices for impounded vehicles are reported to be up to two-thirds off the cost of the vehicle’s retail cost. 

On the downside, vehicle descriptions can be incomplete or inaccurate, so there’s more risk in the purchase. Plus, the vehicle had been unused for months, which can lead to power issues. 

Most times, purchasing a vehicle at a police auction is worth the investment. If you purchase a $10,000-car at half price at an auction, it will require $5,000 in repairs before breaking even (financially) with purchasing it retail. Purchasing other items is also worthwhile, especially if you know the items you’re purchasing and know what to look for when examining them.  

Police Auctions 101

Now that you have a better understanding of the ins and outs of police auctions, you can start prepping to attend one, either in-person or online. The more you know about the auctions and the bidding process, the higher your chances of winning. Police auctions come with inherent risks, but there are also clear gains as well. Once you’re ready to begin your search, there’s one place you should start.


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