A recent study released by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leading public interest law firm, calls into question a number of justifications for civil asset forfeiture. Contrary to claims by law enforcement, seizing property from criminal suspects does not appear to meaningfully reduce crime rates or lessen drug use. Far from being used to fight major drug traffickers, civil asset forfeiture is usually deployed against the poor and people of color.
Civil asset forfeiture is a process allowing police and prosecutors to seize money and property from criminal suspects, particularly in drug cases, when that property is tied to criminal activity. It came into fashion in the 1980s, when governments began emphasizing the War on Drugs.
People’s assets can be seized regardless of their guilt, as long as law enforcement can find a tie to criminal activity. Seizures happen even when the charges are ultimately dropped. For example, Reason magazine reported on an Alabama couple who were accused of misdemeanor marijuana use. After kicking down their door and throwing a flash-bang grenade, officers seized their home and livelihood. The misdemeanor charge was ultimately dropped.
In order to get the property back, the owner has to prove to a court that the cash or property had no connection to criminal activity — but that can be very difficult. And police and prosecutors get to keep the assets. This has led to accusations of “policing for profit.”
In February, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that “excessive” forfeitures are unconstitutional. However, the court gave little guidance on how the term “excessive” is to be defined.
Federal forfeiture sharing data indicates little benefit
The study was performed by a professor of economics from Seattle University. He looked at data from the Justice Department’s equitable sharing program, where the value of seized assets — hundreds of millions of dollars — are distributed to state and local law enforcement agencies.
Comparing asset forfeiture revenue to the crime clearance rates of the recipient police agencies, the professor found little correlation between receiving the seized property and better law enforcement outcomes. For example, receiving an additional $1,000 from the program translated to just 2.4 more cases cleared per 1,000 offenses reported.
As reported by Reason, civil asset forfeiture is indeed used sometimes to seize large amounts of cash from major drug traffickers. However, the average seizure amount is quite low. One study found the median average amount seized in Chicago between 2012 and 2017 was $1,049.
Moreover, asset forfeitures increase when the economy declines. The Seattle University professor found that a 1% increase in the local unemployment rate “was associated with a statistically significant 9 percentage point increase in seizures of property for forfeiture.”