The Institute for Justice’s flagship forfeiture report, Policing for Profit, grades the civil forfeiture laws of each state and the federal government and demonstrates how financial incentives to seize property, in combination with weak protections for property owners, put people’s property at risk. IJ has also published reports exposing the injustices with federal civil forfeiture programs, including “equitable sharing” and IRS “structuring” seizures.
Policing for Profit
The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture
By Lisa Knepper, Jennifer McDonald, Kathy Sanchez, and Elyse Smith Pohl
In 2019, nursing student and single mother Stephanie Wilson had not one, but two cars seized by the Detroit Police Department, losing the first one forever.1 That same year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Transportation Security Administration seized retiree Terry Rolin’s life savings of $82,373 from his daughter as she passed through Pittsburgh International Airport on her way to open a joint bank account for him.2 Three years earlier and about 1,000 miles away, a sheriff’s deputy in rural Muskogee, Oklahoma, seized more than $53,000 from Eh Wah, the tour manager for a Burmese Christian musical act, during a routine traffic stop; the funds were concert proceeds and donations intended to support Burmese Christian refugees and Thai orphans.3 None of these victims were convicted of any crime.
Their stories illustrate a nationwide problem: civil forfeiture. Civil forfeiture allows police to seize property on the mere suspicion that it is involved in criminal activity. Prosecutors can then forfeit, or permanently keep, the property without ever charging its owner with a crime. By contrast, criminal forfeiture requires prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an owner is guilty of a crime and then, in the same proceeding, prove the property is connected to the crime.
As this report demonstrates, the cases of Stephanie Wilson, Terry Rolin and Eh Wah are not isolated incidents: Local, state and federal agencies use civil forfeiture to collectively forfeit billions of dollars each year.
Civil forfeiture laws generally make it easy for governments to forfeit property—and hard for people to fight. As this report documents, these laws typically set low standards of proof, which is the evidentiary burden prosecutors must meet to connect property to a crime. And they provide weak protections for innocent owners whose property is caught up in forfeiture but who have done nothing wrong. Most forfeiture laws also make seizing and forfeiting people’s property lucrative for law enforcement. In most states and under federal law, some or all of the proceeds from forfeiture go to law enforcement coffers. Thus, Wayne County law enforcement, federal law enforcement and Muskogee County law enforcement stood to benefit financially from forfeiting Stephanie’s cars and Terry’s and Eh Wah’s cash. Giving law enforcement this financial stake in forfeiture can distort priorities, encouraging agencies to pursue financial gain over public safety or justice, cash over crime or contraband.4 Together, civil forfeiture’s ease and financial rewards drive its use nationwide.
Despite the billions generated, our data indicate the typical individual cash forfeiture is relatively small—only a few hundred or a few thousand dollars. This suggests that, aside from a few high-profile cases, forfeiture often does not target drug kingpins or big-time financial fraudsters. More than that, the data show why it often makes little economic sense for property owners to fight. The cost of hiring an attorney—a virtual necessity in navigating complex civil forfeiture processes, where there is generally no right to counsel—often outweighs the value of seized property. This is why Stephanie abandoned her first car.5 Still, many small forfeitures such as hers can make a great deal of economic sense for law enforcement. In just two years, the Wayne County forfeiture program that claimed Stephanie’s car generated $1.2 million in revenue from 2,600 cars.6
- Click to See Distribution of Forfeitures
Americans Overwhelmingly Oppose Civil Forfeiture
Do you support or oppose civil forfeiture?
As you may or may not know, “civil forfeiture” allows law enforcement officials to seize cash, cars, or other property if they suspect it is involved in a crime, even if the property owner has not been convicted or charged with a crime. Given this, to what extent do you support or oppose “civil forfeiture?”
8% - Strongly support
17% - Somewhat support
23% - Somewhat oppose
36% - Strongly oppose
15% - No opinion
Federal law allows law enforcement agencies to keep 100 percent of proceeds from property that has been forfeited. To what extent do you support or oppose allowing law enforcement agencies to use forfeited property or its proceeds for their own use?
7% - Strongly support
16% - Somewhat support
19% - Somewhat oppose
44% - Strongly oppose
15% - Don't Know/No opinion
States like Minnesota and others have recently passed laws limiting the use of civil forfeiture, but legislators left in place a provision allowing local law enforcement to work with federal officials to bypass the tougher state law. Once federal prosecutors forfeit the property, they give 80 percent back to the local officials. Do you agree that state law enforcement officials should be allowed to participate in and benefit from forfeitures that are not permitted under state law?
Victims of civil forfeiture call it frustrating, corrupt and unfair. This first-of-its-kind survey describes the experiences of victims of one civil forfeiture program, Philadelphia’s. It finds victims typically came from disadvantaged communities, and they had extreme difficulty trying to fight the forfeiture of their property, even when innocent. It also suggests the program did little to fight crime: Not only did police often seize small amounts of cash and low-value cars—hardly the stuff of drug kingpins—but the city often forfeited property from people never proven guilty of anything. These victims’ experiences provide a cautionary tale for forfeiture programs nationwide.
Forfeiture is a controversial tool police and prosecutors use to take and keep people’s cash, cars and even homes under the guise of fighting crime. This study is the first to look at whether state forfeiture actually fights crime or is instead used to “police for profit.” Looking at data from five states that use forfeiture extensively—Arizona, Hawaii, Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota—it finds forfeiture doesn’t work to fight crime but is used to raise revenue. Contrary to proponents’ claims, more forfeiture proceeds don’t help police solve more crimes or reduce drug use, but police do appear to ramp up forfeiture activity when local economies suffer. These results are particularly salient during the COVID-19 pandemic, when local governments are facing budget shortfalls. They also add to mounting evidence that forfeiture fails to serve the public good, all while violating Americans’ property and due process rights, showing the pressing need for forfeiture reform.
Nationwide, civil forfeiture is a massive threat to property and due process rights. So finds the third edition of Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture. The report presents the largest ever collection of state and federal forfeiture data—17 million data points—and grades the civil forfeiture laws of each state, the District of Columbia and the federal government. The report also includes a new analysis finding no increase in crime after New Mexico abolished civil forfeiture and the profit incentive in 2015, showing that strong forfeiture reform does not sacrifice public safety.
This study—the most extensive and sophisticated of its kind—combines more than a decade’s worth of data from the nation’s largest forfeiture program, the Department of Justice’s equitable sharing program, with local crime, drug use and economic data from a variety of federal sources. Results are clear: Forfeiture has no meaningful effect on crime fighting, but forfeiture activity does increase when local economies suffer.
Most civil and criminal forfeiture activity happens with little legislative or public oversight. So does most spending from forfeiture funds. This report examines forfeiture reporting requirements and practices for all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia and the U.S. departments of Justice and the Treasury. It finds that forfeiture programs nationwide suffer from a lack of transparency and accountability.
In 2017, the Department of Justice revived a controversial federal forfeiture program the previous administration had sharply curtailed. Using the DOJ’s own data, this paper finds that the DOJ cannot substantiate its claim that civil forfeiture fights crime. It also concludes that the DOJ’s new safeguards are unlikely to provide meaningful protection to innocent property owners.
In 2017, Arizona adopted incremental but important bipartisan reforms of the state’s civil forfeiture system, including new transparency requirements for forfeiture. The first full year of these new reports—for Fiscal Year 2018—is already illuminating. The Institute for Justice’s analysis of these reports finds evidence of forfeiture abuse in Arizona.
Thanks to federal civil forfeiture laws, the Internal Revenue Service has seized millions of dollars from thousands of Americans’ bank accounts without proof of criminal wrongdoing. The IRS claimed the funds were illegally “structured”—deposited or withdrawn in small amounts to evade federal reporting requirements imposed on banks—and simply took the money.
Critics of civil forfeiture have long argued that allowing law enforcement to take property and pocket the proceeds creates incentives to put profits ahead of justice. This report shows that the incentives in civil forfeiture laws do change behavior, and not in a good way: Civil forfeiture creates a strong temptation for law enforcement to seize property to pad their own budgets.