Civil asset forfeiture laws were originally intended as a way to fight drug trafficking. The laws originated and grew in the 1970s and 1980s as law enforcement agencies lacked a way to diminish the operations of resilient drug trafficking operations.
But the laws have also created for law enforcement agencies a lucrative stream of revenue, and the numbers show just how common civil forfeiture has become in the United States.
The monetary value of assets seized by law enforcement has shrunk in recent years due to eased regulations introduced under the Obama administration, but current Attorney General Jefferson Sessions has hinted at a reversal of these policies, saying that he encourages the seizing of assets “whenever appropriate in order to hit organized crime in the wallet.”
However, like many things that are theoretically a force for good, civil forfeiture laws have the potential for abuse. In some cases, the targets of civil forfeiture are completely innocent and just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The amount seized can even sometimes be so low that it isn’t worth hiring the necessary legal representation to get the property back.
Between the years 1989 and 2010, U.S. law enforcement seized an estimated $12.6 billion in asset forfeiture cases, seeing an annual increase of 19.4% during that time period. From 2009-2010, there was a 52.8% increase, making 2010’s total six times larger than 1989. Then, by 2014, the number reached $4.5 billion for the year, meaning this 35% of the entire number of assets collected from 1989 to 2010 in a single year.
The year 2014 marked a major milestone in asset forfeiture – the value of assets seized by the government had, for the first time, surpassed the total value of goods stolen by criminals in burglary offenses. With the total amount of stolen goods at $3.9 billion, the amount seized by law enforcement exceeded this number by over $500 million.
In this same year, Washington, D.C. paid out $855,000 to settle a class-action suit involving civil forfeiture. The suit argued that constitutional rights were violated by the city’s policy of seizing and taking cash. In the end, U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper approved the disbursement of $500,000 to the 1,377 claimants, with another $300,000 being allocated for attorney’s fees and expenses. Some of the claimants had as little as $100 in their pockets when their property was taken by law enforcement, so it was likely that for some claimants, their only recourse was a class action lawsuit. Under D.C. law, owners whose property has been seized have 30 days to file a claim to get their property back, while the city has one year to file a civil forfeiture action.
The total amount of assets seized by law enforcement agencies grew from $94 million in 1986 to $4.5 billion by 2014. Even when adjusting for inflation, this is a huge increase. Although the amount seized in 2016 was nearly half of what was seized in 2014, it is still likely that the value of assets reported by states are not entirely accounted for, due to varying levels of detail required by those states. Regardless, with asset forfeiture expansion on the Justice Department’s agenda, it’s possible that those numbers could rise again.