The aggressive pursuit of people’s homes, cash, and possessions through use of civil forfeiture laws continues to escalate, becoming an essential “cash cow” for law enforcement departments that show little or no transparency in how they spend the money they seize from those who haven’t even been formally charged with a crime, according to an updated report by the Institute for Justice (IJ).
In light of Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently rolling back a series of Obama-era restrictions on civil-asset forfeiture, the issue is front and center in policy discussions. In a statement announcing the Justice Department’s new directive, Sessions described civil forfeiture as a “key tool that helps law enforcement defund organized crime, take back ill-gotten gains, and prevent new crimes from being committed.”
However, in an expanded second edition of the report “Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture,” IJ concluded that reforms are much needed in the present laws, ranking states by their protection of citizens’ rights with regard to civil forfeiture. Thirty-five states ranked below a “C,” with the 10 worst being New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Virginia, West Virginia, Wyoming. At the very bottom of the list are Massachusetts and North Dakota, the two states to receive an “F.”
The 2010 release of Policing for Profit, along with newspaper stories on questionable police seizures, brought more attention to the controversy. In recent years, New Mexico and Washington, D.C. passed reforms, and lawmakers across the country are taking more of an interest in civil forfeiture’s abuses in light of the staggering increases in seizures—in 2014, annual deposits into the Department of Justice’s Assets Forfeiture Fund reached $4.5 billion, a 4,667 percent increase over 1986.
The IJ report, written by Dick M. Carpenter II, Ph.D., Lisa Knepper, Angela C. Erickson and Jennifer McDonald, with contributions from Wesley Hottot and Keith Diggs, calls for abolishing civil forfeiture, and if not, to prevent law enforcement from seizing money and possessions until the standard is raised to “beyond a reasonable doubt.” As it stands, a person’s home or business can be seized without his or her being convicted or even charged with a crime.
The report also urges lawmakers to “remove any financial incentive for law enforcement to seize property.” When it comes to reform, “Opposition from law enforcement is fierce,” notes the new IJ report, which delves into the lack of transparency on what police do with the money seized in the chapter “Following the Funds.”
According to the report, “most jurisdictions lack any reporting requirements for forfeiture expenditure.” Across the country, the three law-enforcement categories receiving funds appear to be salaries, equipment, and “other.” The IJ was able to obtain “equitable sharing records” from eight states. In this group, between 15 percent and 34 percent of forfeitures went to equipment and between 23 and 40 percent went to “other law enforcement expenses.” Just 1.7 percent of the money seized by police went to community programs such as crime prevention and drug abuse treatment, “despite the importance civil forfeiture’s defenders often place on such spending.” For example, Arizona spent 23 percent ($4.8 million) of state forfeiture gains on salaries, 35 percent ($7.5 million) on “other,” and 23 percent ($4.9 million) on equipment.
“Incentives matter to law enforcement,” the report concludes, “and when decisions are made about civil forfeiture, the ease of the process and, especially, the possibility of financial reward are key factors. This is a dangerous reality given that allowing law enforcement to self-generate revenue undermines democratic controls, distorts law enforcement priorities and puts property owners at risk.”
This summary was prepared by TCR Deputy Web Editor Nancy Bilyeau. The full report can be found online here.