Civil Asset Forfeiture

Civil Forfeiture Does Not Seem To Reduce Drug Use or Help Fight Crime

A new study provides further evidence that property seizures are driven by financial motives rather than public safety concerns.

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Civil asset forfeiture, which allows police to seize property they allege is connected to crime without arresting (let alone convicting) the owner, has provoked intense criticism in the United States, especially during the last decade. The critics argue that the practice demolishes due process and undermines property rights, giving cops a license to steal from innocent people who often lack the resources to resist.

In response, defenders of civil forfeiture argue that it deters and incapacitates drug traffickers by confiscating their profits, along with assets they use for production and distribution. The tactic's supporters also say the revenue it yields helps fight drug trafficking and other kinds of crime because it supplements the budgets of law enforcement agencies.

In a new study published by the Institute for Justice, Seattle University economist Brian Kelly tests both of those claims and finds no evidence to support them. Kelly analyzed data from five states that use forfeiture extensively: Arizona, Hawaii, Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota. He reports no statistically significant relationship between increased forfeiture revenue and lower drug use rates or higher crime clearance rates.

To the contrary, Kelly found that clearance rates for violent crimes tend to fall as forfeiture revenue rises. That result is consistent with the criticism that the lure of found money diverts law enforcement resources from predatory crimes to drug offenses. Kelly also found that forfeiture revenue tends to rise as economic conditions worsen, which likewise suggests the practice is driven by financial incentives rather than public safety concerns.

"More forfeiture proceeds do not lead to less drug use, even though forfeiture
proponents have long cited fighting the illicit drug trade—and the reduction
of drug use—as a primary purpose of forfeiture," Kelly writes. "More forfeiture proceeds do not help police solve more crimes—and they may, perversely, make police less effective at solving violent crimes."

Kelly used the National Survey on Drug Use and Health to estimate past-year consumption of any illicit drug, marijuana, cocaine, and prescription opioids (for nonmedical purposes). He reports that "none of these four drug use measures showed any systematic association with forfeiture revenues, either for state and local forfeiture proceeds alone or for combined federal, state, and local forfeiture proceeds."

That is hardly surprising, given the general ineffectiveness of drug law enforcement. Even when forfeiture is deployed against a major drug dealer, the confiscation of his assets is not likely to have any more impact on drug availability or cost than his arrest or imprisonment would. And forfeiture, like the drug war generally, tends to target small fry and innocent bystanders rather than big fish.

"Currency forfeitures in the states are typically just $1,300 or less," Kelly notes. In some states, the median is even lower: just a few hundred dollars. In 2017, nearly all of the vehicles seized by Michigan's forfeiture program were worth less than $1,000. It would be a miracle if petty, money-grubbing forfeitures like these had any noticeable impact on the drug supply.

In the aggregate, however, small-time forfeitures can make a significant contribution to the budgets of local law enforcement agencies. "When local budgets are squeezed, police respond by increasing their reliance on forfeiture," Kelly says. "A one percentage point increase in unemployment—a common measure of economic health—was associated with an 11% to 12% increase in forfeiture activity."

This reliance on forfeiture revenue is conspicuous when state legislators consider reforming or abolishing the practice. Last year an Arizona bill that would have required a criminal conviction prior to forfeiture passed the state Senate unanimously but foundered in the House, where Democrats unanimously opposed it. One of their main concerns was the bill's impact on law enforcement budgets.

The results of the new Institute for Justice study are similar to what Kelly found in 2019 when he looked at the Justice Department's "equitable sharing" program, which gives local agencies a big cut of the take when they initiate or assist forfeitures completed under federal law. According to the 2019 study, "more equitable sharing funds do not translate into more crimes solved" and "do not mean less drug use." Kelly also found that when local unemployment rose by one percentage point, equitable sharing revenue rose by nine percentage points.

"These findings that forfeiture is not meeting its policy goals would be of considerable concern even if forfeiture were harmless," Kelly concludes in the new study. "But forfeiture is not harmless. It is a serious intrusion on civil liberties. Property is often seized and forfeited based only on a police officer's probable cause determination, as owners fail to contest seizures of their property because they are stymied by a confusing system, cannot afford legal representation or are compelled to sign away their right to their property to avoid possible criminal charges. Even when people do contest forfeiture, the system provides owners with poor protections that disadvantage them every step of the way."

NEXT: Appeals Court Rules Against New York Police Unions, Says Misconduct Records Can Be Released

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30 responses to “Civil Forfeiture Does Not Seem To Reduce Drug Use or Help Fight Crime

  1. Civil asset forfeiture is not going anywhere. The government will get its pound of flesh, one way or another. Call it a tax. Call it a penalty. Call it the price of doing business.

  2. Posted this last night.

    Greta Thunberg, with a careless tweet, caused Indian activist to be arrested who faces possible life in prision.

    Twitter is like a pipe bomb factory for retards where they hand out free cigarettes and matches.

    1. Oh, Greta will scowl at them and they’ll let her go.

      1. That would be racist.

        The fact that you would choose to listen to a white person on the same issue rather than a person of colour, to me, is environmental racism,

        – Disha Ravi

  3. In other news, a study says the sun will come up tomorrow.

    1. Well there’s also the study that shows there’s little correlation between civil asset forfeiture and the longevity of frogs, the weight of homemade chocolate chip cookies, the temperature of sea water, and about a million other things, too. The only question is why you would expect such a correlation between civil asset forfeiture and anything else.

  4. With all due regard to Jacob Sullum and to the Institute for Justice, which does seem to do great work, these findings are a complete non sequitur to the argument that “the practice demolishes due process and undermines property rights, giving cops a license to steal from innocent people who often lack the resources to resist.” The research could indicate that civil forfeiture was an effective check on crime and drug use, but it wouldn’t make the practice any less noxious to the idea of liberty or any less deserving of abject condemnation.

    1. ^ This.

    2. But since not everybody believes that, you’ve got to give them other reasons. In a non-libertarian world, to get more liberty, you have to convince authoritarians and neutrals to side with you on the issue.

      1. FFS, we are like 3% of the public and even we cant agree with each other on anything. Whats the fucking point of trying to convince anyone that we have the best ideas.

  5. Asset forfeiture, like traffic enforcement, drug laws and the like, are nothing more than revenue for the government. These are regressive taxes levied on people who can’t afford to defend themselves. Doesn’t affect rich people.

    1. Oh, it can affect rich people. Remember that celebrated case about 25 years ago of the couple with the expensive house and real estate that government coveted, so to plant evidence the cops had to sneak in undercover and wound up killing them?

      1. No. I don’t.

  6. Where is the “Fuck you Reason, Jacob was mean to Trump!” chorus? You losers are getting slow.

    1. They are all still crying over Rush’s death.

      1. Crying? The hell we are.

        We are still celebrating RBG’s death.

    2. I’m glad Jacob seems to have gotten Trump out of his brain for at least a little while. I hope that it lasts.

      1. He’s best work is on the drug/crime beat. Not so great at political reporting.

  7. “driven by financial motives rather than public safety concerns”

    Naw, really!

  8. The critics argue that the practice demolishes due process and undermines property rights, giving cops a license to steal…”

    “…defenders of civil forfeiture argue that it deters and incapacitates drug traffickers by confiscating their profits, along with assets they use for production and distribution. The tactic’s supporters also say the revenue it yields helps fight drug trafficking and other kinds of crime because it supplements the budgets of law enforcement agencies.”

    FTFY

  9. “Civil Forfeiture Does Not Seem To Reduce Drug Use or Help Fight Crime”

    “Doesn’t do what, now? What does this have to do with the purpose of…wait, I mean of course it fights money, I mean fights crime.” /cops

  10. To me civil asset forfeiture before conviction is a crime conducted by the state. Now after the person is convicted of the crime and it is proven that the property to be forfeited was used to commit the crime or was acquired with proceeds of the crime. The state may impound the assets until after the court proceedings. If the state wins then it could take the assets but if it loses then it has to return the assets and pay the prevailing interest rates on the assets and any proceeds that the assets would have earned.

  11. “These findings that forfeiture is not meeting its policy goals would be of considerable concern even if forfeiture were harmless,” Kelly concludes in the new study.

    It’s publicly stated policy goals, which don’t necessarily have anything to do with the real policy goals.

  12. Legal drugs!
    Strong drugs!
    Cheap drugs!
    Problem solved!

    Those who don’t use still won’t.
    Those who use safely still will.
    Those who use unsafely still will, but as smaller problems for less time.
    “Justice System” problems will shrink as will its fiscal burden.

  13. Civil asset forfeiture only fills the coffers of a corrupt government entity.

    Civil asset forfeiture should be illegal, unless the suspect is charged and convicted and there is proof that the asset was conclusively determined by a jury to be directly acquired with fund or due to the specific crime that the suspect was convicted of. In this very limited case the asset could be seized and sold to compensate any victims.

    Absolutely zero of the proceed should go to any government entity. If there are excess proceeds, the excess would go to a private charity that assists similar victims of this specific crime.

  14. “Civil Forfeiture Does Not Seem To Reduce Drug Use or Help Fight Crime”

    Umm, that implies that it was intended to do that. It wasn’t. It was intended to make it impossible for people to afford lawyers to defend themselves against the government. In that aspect it absolutely succeeded once they figured out they should target poor people.

    1. Asshat, you forgot the closing html tag!

      I plead vodka your honor.

  15. It’s legalized government theft, and to any “law and order” moron who supports it I hope they steal your life savings. See how hard it is to get it back !!

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