Civil Asset Forfeiture

FBI Insists That When They Steal People's Stuff, They're Doing It for You

They take $5 billion and give back $100 million to crime victims. These numbers don't add up.



The FBI does want you to understand that while, yes, they do seize and keep billions of dollars in assets from citizens through a system that doesn't require them to prove a crime, they're doing it for the financial benefit of communities.

Nowhere in this new FBI "news story" titled "Forfeiture as an Effective Law Enforcement Tool" will you find the words "Fourth Amendment, "Due Process," or "innocence." Instead it uses a single example of using forfeiture to snag drug dens in Rutland, Vermont, and returning them to the community. By "community" they mean the organization with a $1.25 million redevelopment grant and not the family that was forced out of one of the buildings and ended up living in a trailer. That's right—the FBI is using a case where families got bounced out of their homes as an example of the benefits of forfeiture. The FBI wants to convince us that this is what civil asset forfeiture looks like—that it is all for our benefit.

Civil asset forfeiture is the mechanism by which law enforcement agencies—local and national—use administrative and court systems to take and keep people's money in assets without actually having to prove they committed a crime. This FBI piece openly acknowledges in this little story that civil forfeiture targets property, not people, and is "not dependent on a criminal prosecution." They justify this violation of due process because it's for our benefit. They explain that it's to better facilitate giving back to crime victims:

[I]f the case involves depreciating assets (like cars), we can civilly forfeit those assets faster than in the criminal proceeding, then liquidate the assets and get them back to the victim at a better return than if we had held the assets until the criminal case was completed. We also do parallel cases to ensure we can forfeit the assets civilly in case the defendant flees or dies before the forfeiture order is handed down.

The short piece ends by telling us that FBI forfeiture resulted in $100 million in restitution to crime victims over the past two years and $4 billion in restitution since 2000. But those numbers are not provided in any sort of context that tells us how much the federal government seizes property in total, and deliberately so. This entire little piece of propaganda is all about insisting that the citizens are the beneficiaries of this venture.

Here's some context: In just 2014 the federal government deposited $5 billion in seized assets. That was just one year. So this $100 million in restitution over two years is a drop in the bucket compared to what they've taken. Most of the money is kept for themselves or shared with local law enforcement agencies.

The reality of where the money goes is why organizations like the Institution for Justice refer to forfeiture as "policing for profit" and it's why a vast majority of Americans oppose civil asset forfeiture when they understand how it works.

No doubt the increasing public opposition to this practice explains why the FBI felt the need to put out this little justification for the practice focusing on how citizens benefit. The problem though is that for every example of victims of a crime being reimbursed through forfeiture, we have dozens upon dozens of cases where the feds use this complicated administrative process to try to seize property from innocent owners simply because a crime happened on the premises.

Much more from Reason on asset forfeiture on the federal and state level here. Expect to see more pushes for at least state-level reforms in 2017.