A report released yesterday questions the value of civil asset forfeiture as a means to reduce crime. While proponents of forfeiture tout its ability to target drug traffickers, the report argues that forfeiture as a practice has not led to reduced drug use. The report also argues that that revenue from forfeitures has only led to a “very small” increase in the number of crimes solved.
In its report, “Fighting Crime or Raising Revenue,” the Institute for Justice looked at ten years of data relating to the federal equitable sharing program. Civil asset forfeiture is a procedure whereby law enforcement agencies may take possession of an individual’s property if it is suspected of being involved in a crime. Equitable sharing is a specific form of asset forfeiture where local or state law enforcement team up with the feds on a case.
According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), civil asset forfeiture is an essential tool to remove “the proceeds of crime” and that “asset forfeiture has the power to disrupt or dismantle criminal organizations that would continue to function if we only convicted and incarcerated specific individuals.”
In the case of equitable sharing, 80 percent of the proceeds of any forfeiture goes back to local or state law enforcement agencies while the feds keep the remaining 20 percent. This money is then used to fund local law enforcement operations. Speaking back in 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions presented this as a good thing: “Civil asset forfeiture takes the material support of the criminals and, instead, makes it the material support of law enforcement—funding priorities like new vehicles, bulletproof vests, opioid overdose reversal kits, and better training,” he said.
According to Dr. Brian Kelly, the study’s author, because law enforcement agencies are able to fund themselves through asset forfeiture, they are able to avoid proper governmental oversight. He writes that “in allowing agencies to self-fund, the financial incentive circumvents democratic controls. Agencies acquire forfeiture funds outside the normal appropriations process, enabling spending without legislative approval.”
While several states have made moves to limit civil asset forfeiture or suppress it altogether at the state level, this does not necessarily stop law enforcement agencies from participating in the federal equitable sharing program. For example, in North Carolina, there is no civil asset forfeiture. All forfeitures should be processed criminally. To circumvent this restriction, North Carolina police departments frequently participate in equitable sharing. As well as retaining 80 percent of the proceeds, it is considerably easier to process a civil asset forfeiture through equitable sharing than it is to process a criminal asset forfeiture. Not only is the bar for evidence lower in a civil asset forfeiture, but defendants have no right to counsel, making it harder for innocent owners to get their property back.
Kelly also found that forfeitures increased during periods of economic stress, with a 1 percent increase in unemployment rates leading to a 9.5 percent increase in the number of assets seized. This suggests law enforcement uses forfeiture to increase their cash flow when local budgets are tight.
“The ability to generate revenue,” concludes Kelly, “is a significant motivator of police forfeiture activity.”
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If your lawful property has been seized, then you should hire a lawyer. Contact us to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of Florida’s most experienced civil forfeiture defense attorneys.