Federal asset forfeiture funds have little to no impact on solving crimes, rather police are more interested in the revenue generated — summarizes a damning Institute for Justice report.
Law enforcement groups have long argued that civil asset forfeiture, a practice that allows police to seize property suspected of being connected to criminal activity, is a vital tool for stopping drug trafficking, but a new study found that the nation’s largest forfeiture program had little effect on crime fighting.
The Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm has challenged asset forfeiture laws in several states, The Study examines a decade’s worth of data from the Justice Department, who run the program responsible for divvying up hundreds of millions of dollars in forfeiture revenues, and categorically contradicts the notions that forfeiture proceeds result in more solved crimes or less drug trafficking.
Dr. Brian Kelly, an associate professor of economics at Seattle University, who authored this comprehensive study, says the results undercut law enforcement’s claim that asset forfeiture funding helps drive down crime.
Civil asset forfeiture allows police to seize property—cars, cash, and even houses—suspected of being connected to criminal activity. The owner does not have to be charged, or convicted, for law enforcement to forfeit the property, the proceeds of which are usually split between police departments and prosecutor offices. In 1980s, the war on drugs gave rise to the fallacy that seizing drug-dens has considerable effect on crimes related to drugs. It continues to be the top pro forfeiture argument trumpeted by law enforcement advocacy camp followed by swift resolution of cases.
Law enforcement groups, from local sheriffs to the U.S. Attorney General, have fought against tighter restrictions on how police can seize property, saying it will cripple their ability to fight major drug crimes. However, civil liberties groups and advocacy organizations across the political spectrum say it has too few protections for innocent property owners and too many perverse profit incentives for police.
The study reported that a 1 percent increase in local unemployment “was associated with a statistically significant 9 percentage point increase in seizures of property for forfeiture.”
The study titled, “Fighting Crime or Raising Revenue”, debunks both these ideas with statistical chutzpah idiosyncratic to a professor of economics. Dr. Kelly also found that asset seizures increase as a community faced economic downturn. For example, the study reported that a 1 percent increase in local unemployment “was associated with a statistically significant 9 percentage point increase in seizures of property for forfeiture.”
“These results add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that forfeiture’s value in crime fighting is exaggerated and that police do use forfeiture to raise revenue,” Dr. Kelly remarks in a press release. “Given this evidence and the serious civil liberties concerns raised by forfeiture, forfeiture proponents should bear the burden of proof when opposing reforms that would keep police focused on fighting crime, not raising revenue.”
Also, comparing crime clearance rates to forfeiture revenue, Dr. Kelly found that the impact of forfeiture funds on crime-fighting was, at worst, insignificant and at best wildly overstated. For example, the study calculates that a $1,000 increase in forfeiture funding per officer “would mean solving just 2.4 more crimes per 1,000 reported offenses.”
While police, surely, use Civil Asset Forfeiture to secure huge stashes of drugs and cash on U.S. soil, yet numerous news investigations and studies have found that it is just as often, if not more frequently, used to seize petty amounts of cash from everyday people, not cartel lords.
A recent survey of 560 civil asset forfeiture cases in four Texas counties conducted by the Texas Tribune found that half of the cash seizures were for less than $3,000, and 20 percent of the cases were not accompanied by criminal charges. In another joint investigation, by several South Carolina news organizations it’s shown that more than 55 percent of the time when South Carolina police seized cash, they took less than $1,000. An independent analysis of more than 23,000 asset forfeiture cases in Chicago between 2012 and 2017 found the median value was $1,049. Nearly 1,500 of those seizures were for amounts under $100.
Studies and news investigations have also consistently found that asset forfeiture is used disproportionately against minorities and low-income neighborhoods. Time after time, we are presented with evidentiary reports wherein civil asset forfeiture has been used to target individuals suspected of minor drug crimes – cases like Greg and Theresa Almond, an Alabama couple who had their savings seized and livelihood ruined over a misdemeanor marijuana charge that was later dismissed. Or Paul and Maricel Fullerton, a California couple who fought for two years to get back more than $53,000 that was seized during a drug raid that ultimately ended in a misdemeanor marijuana conviction.
Over the past decade, more than half of all states have passed some form of asset forfeiture reform, usually as bipartisan initiatives, in response to the issues raised by these reports.
However, local police departments are able to sidestep these tighter rules by partnering with federal law enforcement, who “adopt” the forfeiture case. The local police’s cut being 80 percent of the forfeiture revenue, while the rest goes into the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Fund. The Fund, which functions as the DOJ’s distribution arm.
“Simply put, increased forfeiture funds had no meaningful effect on crime fighting,” the study concludes. “However, forfeiture was strongly linked to worsening economic conditions. These results suggest law enforcement agencies pursue forfeiture less to fight crime than to raise revenue.”