As The Washington Post Exposes Rampant Forfeiture Abuse on Nation’s Highways, New Study Demonstrates How Civil Forfeiture Tempts Cops to Become Robbers

Washington, D.C.—Imagine getting pulled over for a broken taillight or a forgotten turn signal, only to have your car and the cash you were traveling with confiscated by the police. As The Washington Post documents this week in an explosive three-part series, Stop and seize, exposing rampant abuse of forfeiture laws, that nightmare is an underreported reality for thousands of American motorists each year.

What’s behind the epidemic of forfeiture abuse on our nation’s highways and in cities like Philadelphia? A groundbreaking report released today by the Institute for Justice exposes the profit incentive at the heart of civil forfeiture laws that encourages the pursuit of property, rather than the pursuit of justice.

You can read the report here:

Under civil forfeiture laws, law enforcement can take property suspected of involvement in criminal activity without convicting or charging the owner with a crime. In most places, agencies involved in the forfeiture, including prosecutors and police departments, can keep some or all of the proceeds for their own use.

Defenders of the practice, including law enforcement officers interviewed by the Post, insist that civil forfeiture is about stopping crime, not seizing cash. But the Post’s reporting and IJ’s new report suggest otherwise. The report, Bad Apples or Bad Laws? Testing the Incentives of Civil Forfeiture, details a cutting-edge experiment to determine whether the incentives in civil forfeiture laws change behavior, and if so, how. The results show that they do—and not in a good way: Civil forfeiture’s profit motive creates a strong temptation for law enforcement to seize property to pad their own budgets.

“The study concludes that civil forfeiture abuse isn’t a problem of just a few ‘bad apple’ police officers or rogue prosecutors, but rather bad laws that encourage bad behavior,” said Scott Bullock, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. “Civil forfeiture creates a real and perverse incentive for law enforcement to pursue profits instead of justice.”

The experiment was designed and conducted by Bart Wilson and Michael Preciado. Wilson is a professor at Chapman University and an expert on economics experiments that study how people interact under different sets of rules—here, rules with and without civil forfeiture. Wilson and Preciado gave participants—in this case, 240 Chapman students—choices similar to those faced by law enforcement agencies under civil forfeiture: whether to take property and pocket the proceeds to pad agency budgets, as forfeiture critics argue, or use them to further public welfare, as proponents claim.

Wilson and Preciado concluded, “When civil forfeiture puts people in a position to choose between benefiting themselves or the overall public, people choose themselves.”

“The experiment made it clear that without civil forfeiture, law enforcement is more likely to do its main job of helping people,” explained Wilson. “Under civil forfeiture, the tables are turned. The ‘law enforcement officers’ in our experiment overwhelmingly focused their efforts on taking property—and profiting from it. The loser was the public.”

The experimental results are playing out in real life on our nation’s highways and in cities like Philadelphia, where a veritable machine has taken thousands of homes and brought in more than $64 million in revenue since 2002. In August, the Institute for Justice filed a class action lawsuit challenging Philly’s forfeiture machine. Today, IJ attorneys filed a motion for preliminary injunction to stop Philly’s unconscionable and unconstitutional practice of immediately seizing homes and throwing residents out.

IJ is the nation’s leading legal advocate against civil forfeiture. In addition to waging court battles on behalf of property owners facing civil forfeiture, IJ also recently launched, a wide-ranging online initiative to educate and activate citizens and legislators to fight civil forfeiture.

Federal legislation recently introduced by Rep. Tim Walberg in the House and Sen. Rand Paul in the Senate would go a long way toward curbing many of the outrageous practices documented in the Post’s ongoing series.

“Civil forfeiture is an affront to fundamental American principles of private property rights and due process,” said Chip Mellor, IJ’s President and General Counsel. “The time has come to end it.”