A new study finds law-enforcement agencies across the United States use forfeiture programs to boost their revenue without necessarily helping to fight crime.
Forfeiture programs have been common for years at the federal level and in states and local jurisdictions. They allow law enforcement to confiscate property, cars, cash and the like on the mere suspicion that someone has committed a crime.
The often innocent victims of confiscation then must prove their innocence to get their property back.
The new study, “Does Forfeiture Work?” is by the Institute for Justice, which in 2019 did a nationwide study on the subject.
“Across the country, law enforcement agencies use forfeiture to take billions of dollars in cash, cars and homes under the guise of fighting crime,” the organization said.
But its study shows “that police use forfeiture to boost revenue – in other words, to police for profit.”
The conclusions are drawn from five states that use forfeiture extensively, Arizona, Hawaii, Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota,
“Law enforcement representatives have argued that any civil liberties intrusions from forfeiture are justified because the revenue helps fight crime, but the evidence does not support this,” said Brian Kelly, associate professor of economics at Seatte University and the study’s author. “In fact, the focus on bringing in revenue may well detract from efforts to fight serious, violent crimes.”
The report says: “The scale of forfeiture is vast, with states and the federal government taking in at least $68.8 billion since 2000. With not all states providing complete data, this figure drastically undercounts property taken from people through forfeiture.
“The vast majority of forfeitures are conducted using civil forfeiture, a process that tips the scales heavily in the government’s favor. After the government seizes property, owners must navigate a maze of procedures to try to get it back. Owners are not afforded an attorney and the government need not charge them with a crime, let alone convict them of one, to forfeit—permanently keep—their property. Instead, the government just has to connect property to alleged criminal activity by a standard of proof that is typically far lower than the proof beyond a reasonable doubt required in a criminal trial. Finally, since many law enforcement agencies get to keep forfeiture proceeds, they have an incentive to seize as much as possible.”
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The study concludes forfeiture proceeds do not help police solve more crimes and may make police less effective at solving violent crimes.
Also, more forfeiture proceeds do not lead to less drug use, even though forfeiture proponents have long cited fighting the illicit drug trade — and the reduction of drug use — as a primary purpose of forfeiture, the report says.
And, when local budgets are squeezed, police respond by increasing their reliance on forfeiture. A 1 percentage point increase in unemployment — a common measure of economic health — is associated with an 11% to 12% increase in forfeiture activity, IJ said.
The report cited the case of Stephanie Wilson, a nursing student who in January 2019 got a call from a former boyfriend, the father of her child.
Addicted to drugs, he said he was cold and hungry, and she agreed to drive him to his mother’s house on her way to school.
Detroit police stopped her as soon as she picked him up from a gas station.
“The police provided no explanation for the stop, and they found no drugs or other contraband. Nor did they arrest either Stephanie or her ex. But they did seize Stephanie’s car—supposedly for its having somehow facilitated a violation of Michigan’s drug laws. Although no criminal charges were ever filed in connection to the stop, Stephanie lost her car forever when, despite her best efforts, she missed the 20-day deadline to contest the seizure,” the IJ report explained.
Months later, Stephanie got a tax refund and bought another car, for about $900.
Only weeks later, police seized that one, too.
“As before, police found no drugs and made no arrests. To get her car back, Stephanie was told she would have to pay $1,800 – almost double what she paid for the car – plus towing and storage fees. Stephanie demanded a judicial hearing. Two years later, her forfeiture case is still unresolved. Her car remains in impound.”
Further, most of the forfeiture laws allow law enforcement to keep the money and property the officers take. In Michigan, for example, 100% of forfeited proceeds go to law enforcement.
“This means the Detroit Police Department and other Michigan law enforcement agencies stood to turn a profit from taking Stephanie’s cars. Such forfeitures can be highly lucrative for law enforcement. For example, in just two years, Wayne County law enforcement generated $1.2 million in revenue and seized more than 2,600 vehicles from owners like Stephanie. And a recent nationwide study of forfeiture found state and federal governments forfeited $3 billion in 2018 alone,” IJ said.
The study supports a separate study, IJ said, that showed “when New Mexico eliminated civil forfeiture, public safety was not compromised.”
“This is more powerful evidence that lawmakers across the country need to prioritize ending civil forfeiture and replacing it with criminal forfeiture,” said Lee McGrath, IJ’s senior legislative counsel. “For years, law enforcement has maintained, on the basis of mere anecdotes, that forfeiture is essential to crime fighting and combating drug abuse. Lawmakers can ensure law enforcement is focused on public safety by removing the incentives to police for profit.”
IJ has been working to reverse forfeiture practices since 2010, and during that time 35 states and the District of Columbia have reformed their confiscation procedures.
The organization in 2019 secured a Supreme Court victory in Timbs v. Indiana, in which the justices ruled state civil forfeiture cases are bound by the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “excessive fines.”
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