How Police Profit by Seizing Private Property

The Institute for Justice, which calls itself a "libertarian public interest law firm," just released a national study of civil asset forfeiture laws in all 50 states.

The report explained:

"Under state and federal civil asset forfeiture laws," the report explained, "law enforcement agencies can seize and keep property suspected of involvement in criminal activity. Unlike criminal asset forfeiture, however, with civil forfeiture, a property owner need not be found guilty of a crime -- or even charged -- to permanently lose her cash, car, home or other property.

"The report finds, not surprisingly, that by giving law enforcement a direct financial incentive in pursuing forfeitures and stacking the legal deck against property owners, most state and federal laws encourage policing for profit rather than seeking the neutral administration of justice."

In one year, the Department of Justice seized $1 billion in property. And get this: Eighty percent of forfeitures at the federal level do not involve prosecution. In other words, the suspect hands over the money and/or property and the government does not press the case and does not have to prove anything.

It is true at the state and county level as well. States are seizing millions of dollars in assets without ever filing a criminal charge.

In forfeiture cases, it is not up to the cops to prove you are guilty. It is up to "suspects" to prove they were doing nothing wrong when they carried thousands of dollars in cash, for example, as they drove down the Interstate. "Innocent until proven guilty" does not apply here. The report pointed out that police often benefit from the seizures:

"In 'Policing for Profit,' IJ grades each state on its forfeiture laws and other measures of abuse. Only three states (Maine, North Dakota and Vermont) earned a grade of B or better. Maine earned the highest grade, an A-, largely because all forfeiture revenues go to the state's general fund, not directly into law enforcement coffers. On the other end of the spectrum, states like Texas and Georgia both earned a D- because their laws make forfeiture easy and profitable for law enforcement -- with 90 and 100 percent of proceeds awarded to the agencies that seized the property.

"Federal forfeiture law makes the problem worse with so-called 'equitable sharing.' Under these arrangements, state and local officials can hand over forfeiture prosecutions to the federal government and then receive up to 80 percent of the proceeds -- even when state law bans or limits the profit incentive. Equitable sharing payments to states have nearly doubled from 2000 to 2008, from a little more than $200 million to $400 million.

" 'Our results show that law enforcement is acting in pursuit of profit: Agencies are using federal law as a loophole to circumvent more restrictive and less profitable state laws,' said Marian Williams, Ph.D., assistant professor of government and justice studies at Appalachian State University and a co-author of the report. 'This finding is consistent with a growing body of scholarly research, news reports and even testimonials from law enforcement officers about civil asset forfeiture practices.' "

Additional resources

  • Profile picture for user atompkins

    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


Related News

Email IconGroup 3Facebook IconLinkedIn IconsearchGroupTwitter IconGroup 2YouTube Icon