Recent years have brought public scrutiny on the controversial law enforcement practice of civil asset forfeiture, which lets police seize and keep cash and property from people who are never convicted or even charged with wrongdoing. Despite a growing public outcry spurred in part by by news investigations and congressional hearings a report today from the Institute for Justice, a non-profit civil liberties law firm, finds that the past decade has seen a “meteoric, exponential increase” in the use of the practice, reports the Washington Post. A common measure of the practice is the amount of money in the asset forfeiture funds of the Department of Justice and the U.S. Treasury, the two agencies that typically perform forfeitures at the federal level. In 2008, there were less than $1.5 billion in the combined asset forfeiture funds of the two agencies. By 2014, that number had tripled, to roughly $4.5 billion.
A Justice Department spokesman pointed out that big cases, like the $1.7 billion Bernie Madoff judgment and a $1.2 billion case associated with Toyota, have led to large deposits to forfeiture funds in a single year. The total figures above show the size of the funds after deposits and expenditures are accounted for. “In a given year, one or two high-dollar cases may produce unusually large amounts of money—with a portion going back to victims—thereby telling a noisy story of year-to-year activity levels,” the report found. The numbers reported today represent a more stable and accurate account of forfeiture activity, the institute says. “Even without those major cases, the overall trend is still upward,” said report co-author Lisa Knepper. One possible explanation for the recent rise is that “the years 2008 to 2014 were some lean economic years,” said report co-author Dick Carpenter. “Forfeiture is an attractive way to keep revenue streams flowing when budgets are tight.”