Civil Asset Forfeiture

Read How Chicago Police Use Asset Forfeiture as a Slush-Fund for Surveillance Equipment

An investigation by the Chicago Reader pieces together how the Chicago Police Department uses asset forfeiture funds outside the public eye.


Brian Cassella/TNS/Newscom

One of the most aggravating aspects of civil asset forfeiture for anyone trying to study the subtle beast is just how little information is public about how much property police departments seize, who they seize it from, and where all that revenue goes.

Enter the Chicago Reader, which in an investigation published Thursday painstakingly pieced together how the Chicago Police Department's narcotics unit uses civil forfeiture to create "what amounts to a secret budget—an off-the-books stream of income used to supplement the bureau's public budget."

According to the Reader, the CPD has seized a whopping $72 million in cash and property since 2009 using civil forfeiture, and used some of that money—without any form of public oversight—to purchase controversial surveillance equipment like cell-phone tracking devices.

Among the people caught in the civil forfeiture dragnet was 72-year-old Willie Mae Swansey, whose PT Cruiser was seized by the CPD after her son was caught driving it with 50 to 100 grams of heroin on him.

I filed a couple of the numerous public records requests involved in this investigation and found CPD using seized cars for undercover operations, but read the Reader to see how it all fits together:

The Reader has documented for the first time the full size and scope of CPD's civil forfeiture program—how much money it brings in and how it spends its take. Through numerous Freedom of Information Act requests, the Reader, working with the Chicago-based transparency nonprofit Lucy Parsons Labs and the public records website MuckRock, obtained more than 1,000 pages of CPD documents—including the department's deposit and expenditure ledgers, internal e-mails, and purchasing records—that offer an unprecedented look into how Chicago police and the Cook County state's attorney's office make lucrative use of civil asset forfeiture.

Since 2009, the year CPD began keeping electronic records of its forfeiture accounts, the department has brought in nearly $72 million in cash and assets through civil forfeiture, keeping nearly $47 million for itself and sending on almost $18 million to the Cook County state's attorney's office and almost $7.2 million to the Illinois State Police, according to our analysis of CPD records […]

The Reader found that CPD uses civil forfeiture funds to finance many of the day-to-day operations of its narcotics unit and to secretly purchase controversial surveillance equipment without public scrutiny or City Council oversight. (The Cook County state's attorney's office, for its part, clearly indicates narcotics-related forfeiture income in its annual budget. According to its 2016 budget, the office will use this year's expected forfeiture revenue of $4.96 million to pay the salaries and benefits of the 41 full-time employees of its forfeiture unit.)

As I reported earlier this summer, the state of Illinois seized $72 million over the past couple of years, according to state police documents obtained by the Illinois ACLU through public records requests:

The list is full of digital scales, money counters, safes and guns (including AR-style rifles and shotguns). Among the seized vehicles are no less than six Cadillac Escalades, six Mercedes-Benz sedans, and a 2013 Triumph Bonneville Steve McQueen Edition motorcycle.

Electronics are an especially popular target for seizures by law enforcement, and the Illinois police are no different: Flatscreen TVs, especially of the 50″ and above variety, were common items, along with smart phones, iPads, digital cameras, laptops and video game systems, and Beats by Dre.

But while the documents shed some rare light on asset forfeiture in the state, it didn't tell us, for example, whether the seizures were under civil or criminal procedure, or under what law the assets were seized.

The Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm, gave the state's asset forfeiture laws a "D-" grade for their lax property owner protections, low standards of evidence and expensive bond requirements to challenge seizures.

"Illinois' reporting is better than some states in that they actually have reporting, but it's far, far away from what we believe should be required," Dick Carpenter, director for strategic research at the Institute for Justice, told me. "This is exactly the type of info we think should be reported to the public, but it's very rare that any state collects this or makes it available."