Federal Drug Asset Seizures Slashed by Half Since 2009

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Illustration courtesy Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity

Federal seizures of property owned by individuals convicted of drug crimes have dropped by more than 34 percent in the past five years and by more than half since 2009, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).

Despite a spike in the early summer, the trend has been steadily downward over the past decade, TRAC concluded from a review of civil filings through July, 2019 under Section 21 of the U.S. Food and Drugs Act.

Asset forfeitures have long been used by the federal government and states as a key tool in the “War on Drugs.”  Millions of dollars in property ranging from expensive cars and cash to palatial homes paid for with the proceeds of the narcotics trade have been targeted by prosecutors and drug enforcement authorities.

They have also been used as a weapon to shut down so-called “pill mills” operated by doctors to facilitate the underground distribution of opioids—regarded as a key contributing factor in the U.S. opioid epidemic.

However, the practice has come in for sustained criticism from both the right and the left, on the grounds that it is an infringement of civil liberties. Critics also argue that forfeitures do little to dent the influence and reach of powerful drug cartels. A review of more than 8,200 seizures in Philadelphia found the average forfeiture amount was $550, and the median amount just $178.

“The Justice Department has taken in more than $27 billion in forfeiture funds since 2001, (but) the federal government has made little effort to discern whom these policies are affecting, what collateral effects they may have and, most importantly, whether they actually work,” wrote columnist Ridley Balko in The Washington Post.

In 2009, some 1,426 asset seizures were recorded. But during the first 10 months of 2019 there were only 513.  According to TRAC, the number is projected to reach 616 by the end of the year, which is still lower than the 634 cases recorded during FY 2018.

“Under the current administration, the numbers have risen modestly, but are still far below earlier levels,” TRAC reported.

In July, the number of asset seizures increased by 17.2 percent over the previous month, to 68 cases.

The TRAC figures do not cover seizures by state authorities.

The most “active” federal district in July was the Western District of New York (Buffalo), with five seizures. The Southern District of Illinois (East St. Louis), the District of South Carolina, the Southern District of Texas (Houston), and the Central District of California (Los Angeles) were all tied for second place—with four filings each.

The Buffalo increase may be tied to a series of major drug busts over the spring. In June nine  individuals were charged in Buffalo with conspiracy to distribute cocaine and marijuana, and some face additional charges of distributing cocaine, crack cocaine, marijuana and butyryl fentanyl, following an investigation by federal and state authorities. Earlier,  federal authorities took apart a major trafficking operation that funneled Colombian cocaine into New York, in what was called the largest counter-narcotics operation ever seen in western New York State.

Five years ago, Houston recorded the largest uptick in drug-related asset seizures, TRAC said.

Additional Reading:  Asset Forfeiture Has Little Impact on Solving Crimes, Says New Study.

Read the full TRAC report here.

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