Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture
Source: Institute for Justice
By Marian R. Williams, Ph.D.
Jefferson E. Holcomb, Ph.D.
Tomislav V. Kovandzic, Ph.D.
Civil forfeiture laws represent one of the most serious assaults on private property rights in the nation today. With civil forfeiture, police and prosecutors can seize your property and use it to fund their budgets—all without charging you with a crime. Americans are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but with civil forfeiture, your property is guilty until you prove it innocent—and law enforcement has a huge incentive to police for profit, not justice.
If police suspect that you committed a crime, they can arrest you and put you on trial. At that trial, prosecutors must prove you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
But if police suspect your car was involved in a crime, they can take it, sell it and, in most places, pocket the proceeds to pad their budgets. They need not prove you committed any crime—or even arrest you—to take your property away.
Welcome to the upside-down world of civil asset forfeiture.
With civil forfeiture, your property is guilty until you prove it innocent to get it back.
And because most state and federal laws allow police and prosecutors to pocket the proceeds, they have a big incentive to pursue profits, not justice.
How big? In 1986, the Justice Departments forfeiture fund took in 94 million dollars. Now it has more than a billion. State and local agencies receive forfeiture funds, too—but we don’t know how much because most states don’t publicly report on forfeiture.
No surprise—abuse is rampant. One New York police department spent forfeiture funds on food, gifts and entertainment. In Georgia, forfeiture funds paid for football tickets for a DAs office. In Louisiana, cops used funds to pay for ski trips to Aspen. And a DA in Texas used forfeiture dollars to buy TV ads for his re-election campaign.
Meanwhile, citizens are seeing cash, cars and other property taken away for the flimsiest of reasons. Carrying too much cash? Police can accuse you of selling drugs or laundering money and seize it, no conviction or even arrest required.
An Institute for Justice study grades state laws on how well they protect people from wrongful forfeitures. Only three states receive a B or better. The rest range from mediocre to awful—and so does federal law.
Worse, a federal legal loophole allows police and prosecutors to bypass state protections and keep pocketing forfeiture money. IJ’s research shows that the easier and more profitable these laws make forfeiture, the more it is used and abused.
Its time to end civil forfeiture. People shouldn’t have their property taken away without being convicted of a crime. And law enforcement shouldn’t be policing for profit