Law enforcement lobbyists always oppose asset forfeiture reform, generally relying on the claim that seizing people’s stuff serves as a valuable crime-fighting tool. But a recent study conducted by a Seattle University economist for the Institute of Justice casts serious doubts on this claim, and many others touted by supporters of asset forfeiture.

The study found that increased forfeiture proceeds do not translate to an increase in the number of crimes solved despite the claim that they give law enforcement more crime-fighting resources. Nor do forfeiture proceeds correlate to lower the levels of drug use in the community. Furthermore, the study supports the belief that asset forfeiture leads to “policing for profit.” It revealed that forfeitures tend to increase when local economies struggle, suggesting law enforcement agencies use forfeiture money to plug budget holes.

Dr. Brian Kelly authored the study.

“These results add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that forfeiture’s value in crime fighting is exaggerated and that police do use forfeiture to raise revenue,” he said. “Given this evidence and the serious civil liberties concerns raised by forfeiture, forfeiture proponents should bear the burden of proof when opposing reforms that would keep police focused on fighting crime, not raising revenue.”

The study used local crime, drug use and economic data from a variety of federal sources with more than a decade’s worth of data from the Department of Justice’s equitable sharing program.

The scope of the federal asset forfeiture program is staggering. Between 2001 and 2017, the feds took in close to $40 billion, and the funds’ net assets have surpassed $4 billion in every year since 2013. Between 2000 and 2016, the federal government made more than 660,000 disbursements to state and local law enforcement agencies totaling over $6.8 billion.

Cops claim asset forfeiture proceeds make them more effective crime fighters. They insist additional resources allow them to purchase additional gear and fund special programs. But the study suggested that “forfeiture does not help police solve more crime. The results of these analyses were statistically insignificant at conventional levels, suggesting additional forfeiture revenue does not translate into more crimes solved.” And it doesn’t appear to lower levels of drug use either – one of the oft-stated claims made by police lobbyists supporting forfeiture.

For none of these illicit drug use measures did I find increases in equitable sharing proceeds led to subsequent reductions in use. In short, to the extent forfeiture advocates hope increasing enforcement through forfeiture will reduce drug use, this does not appear to be happening.”

While federal asset forfeiture doesn’t fight crime, it does incentivize state and local police in states with more stringent asset forfeiture procedures to circumvent their state laws and collect funds through the federal program.

“Equitable sharing may also circumvent democratic controls in potentially allowing state and local law enforcement to evade state laws that make forfeiture less lucrative or more difficult. A number of states allow agencies to keep less than 80 percent of forfeiture proceeds or offer more robust protections for property owners; a few have even abolished civil forfeiture entirely. Where a state does not expressly restrict equitable sharing participation, state and local agencies may seize on this loophole.”

A 2018 study bears this out. It found that “on average, agencies in states with the lowest financial incentives and the greatest protections for property owners took in more than twice as much equitable sharing money per agency as agencies in states with the highest incentives and poorest protections.”

This is why it is imperative that state asset forfeiture reforms include provisions to withdraw the state from the federal equitable sharing program.

In a nutshell, the study shows police arguments for forfeiture are basically all lies.

Institute for Justice senior legislative council Lee McGrath puts it more generously, saying the study proves it possible to undertake much-needed asset forfeiture reform without jeopardizing police effectiveness.

“Congress should abolish equitable sharing, and in the meantime, states should opt out of the program. And lawmakers should eliminate the financial incentives in both state and federal forfeiture laws that encourage the pursuit of revenue over the pursuit of justice.” [Emphasis added]

Mike Maharrey

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