Asset Forfeiture

Want to Stop Asset Forfeiture Abuse? Teach Americans That It Happens.

People don't like it when cops take property without getting convictions.

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police stop
Credit: Arne9001 | Dreamstime.com

Americans really, really don't like it when police seize citizens' property and keep it for themselves, especially when the authorities have not proven guilt.

That's the latest data from a new poll from the Cato Institute (and YouGov) examining attitudes about police. Cato notes that a full 84 percent of Americans oppose civil asset forfeiture. Civil asset forfeiture is when police seize property and assets from people suspected of crimes and then keep it for themselves. Note the use of "suspected" not "convicted." Police do not have to convict suspects of crimes to use civil asset forfeiture. In many cases, they don't even have to charge them.

A bipartisan justice push has prompted reforms to regulations in several states (Ohio is the most recent). But despite the fact that Americans significantly oppose the practice, it continues in many places and is authorized and encouraged by the Department of Justice as well.

The latest opposition numbers match almost perfectly numbers from last spring taken from polls in Florida (84 percent) and Utah (83 percent).

There's more useful news for those who know and object to the practice. Even when permitting forfeiture, the majority of people who participated in the survey of 2,000 said they don't want local law enforcement agencies to have control over the assets they seize. Only 24 percent support local agencies keeping it for themselves. The rest either wanted the revenue to go into the state's general fund (48 percent) or in a state-controlled law enforcement fund (28 percent).

Those numbers matter because it indicates that Americans grasp the corrupt incentives that come from allowing police to keep what they seize. Forfeited money and property has been used by police departments to pad budgets, pay overtime, and when law enforcement agencies grow dependent on this money, it encourages the abuse we've seen all across the country.

That asset forfeiture continues at all given its unpopularity among Americans is evidence of how much power law enforcement and prosecutors have over state legislatures. The last couple years have seen some important reforms in New Mexico, Florida, California, Ohio, and elsewhere. But we've also seen efforts for reform get gutted by those who profit off the abusive system (as happened in October in Pennsylvania). Pushes for reforms will continue in the new year. Hopefully there will be some more wins. Teaching Americans what asset forfeiture actually is and how it works would definitely help.

Read more about the poll results at Cato here.