Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

Cops Now Take More Than Robbers

New findings show asset forfeiture a growing attack on property rights.

One of the most troubling recent scenes from Sacramento came as the California state legislature reached the end of its session. A simple bill that would rein in abuses of the civil-asset forfeiture processi.e., when police agencies take property from people, even if they've never been accused of a crimecame far short of passage after the law-enforcement lobby pulled out all the stops. The final vote was about money, not justice.

Police organizations argued they would lose a significant amount of funding if a law passed requiring that they secure a conviction before taking property. They often take homes, cars and cash from people after claiming the property was used in the commission of a crime. They need only prove the low standard of "probable cause." (For instance, one Anaheim couple almost lost a $1.5 million commercial building after an undercover cop bought $37 in marijuana from a tenant, but the feds dropped that case after bad publicity.)

Created in the early days of the nation's war on drugs, asset forfeiture was designed to grab the proceeds from drug kingpins. But most of the money now is grabbed from ordinary citizens. According to a study last year, about 80 percent of the time, seized property is taken from people who have never been charged with anything. That same study, by the Drug Policy Alliance, found wanton abuses in California cities. Police are not supposed to budget forfeiture proceeds, but they increasingly depend on the revenues to fund their operations.

The study also found "multiple instances of cash grabs by law enforcement being incentivized over deterring drug sales, wherein police wait until a drug sale concludes and then seize the cash proceeds of the sale rather than the drugs, as drugs must be destroyed and are of no monetary value to law enforcement." It also found that some Los Angeles County cities "were found to be prioritizing asset forfeiture over general public safety concerns … ." In other words, police skew their policing strategies around these lucrative takings.

California's law actually requires, in property seizures of more than $25,000, that the police agency gain a conviction and the legal standard requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt. California law-enforcement agencies don't like that higher standard, so they circumvent the state law. They participate in something called "equitable sharing"i.e., they invite the feds into their operation, take the property using the lower federal standard, and then split the loot.

A new national study by the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based civil-liberties group, gave California a "C+" in its civil-forfeiture laws. That leads to an obvious question: Given the terrible problems documented in California, how bad must things be in other states? Only seven states had better protections than California and the preponderance of states received "D" grades.

An economic consulting firm reported on data last week showing that the approximately $4.5 billion in annual forfeitures now exceeds the $3.9 billion Americans lose in robberies each year. The clear point: Your local police or sheriff's department is more likely to take your stuff than a robber. The Institute for Justice report found the problem getting worse. "It's exploding, despite the fact that the issue is getting a lot of attention," said Dick Carpenter, one of the study's authors. According to the report, forfeiture revenues have more than doubled between 2002 to 2013. California agencies collected approximately $280 million over the 11-year study periodand an additional $696 million by partnering with federal agencies.

These are big dollars to local police departments, which explains the arm-twisting and lobbying as that reform bill made it to the Assembly floor. Critics of asset forfeiture agree that agencies will lose money, but argue that the government is supposed to promote justice. Their agencies should be funded through general tax proceeds, not by grabbing the homes and cars of people who may not have done anything wrong.

The problem is the incentive. The agencies that do the taking get to keep lots of the money. How can we expect just results when agencies have such a strong financial incentive to take more and more property? In New Mexico, a video of a city attorney bragging that "this is a gold mine" helped build public support for wider-ranging reforms there. As a result, the Land of Enchantment received the highest grade on the Institute for Justice study.

Last year in California, SB 443 would have, among other things, prohibited "state or local law enforcement agencies from transferring seized property to a federal agency seeking adoption by the federal agency of the seized property." Expect something like it to return next year. As abuses mount, maybe legislators will be more likely to think about justice and not just money.

Photo Credit: BC Gov

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Vulgar Madman||

    Think about justice? That's a good one.

  • Scarecrow & WoodChipper Repair||

    If legislators start to think about justice, I expect police will find some way to divert some of the stolen money to legislators, and quickly correct their incentives.

  • straffinrun||

    When you've pushed Huckabee to polish a monocle.

  • Deckard||

    What are incentives and how do they work?

  • BearOdinson||

    Civil asset forfeiture is bogus from the get go and any honest SCOTUS would have declared unconstitutional.

    Having said that, it is absolutely not true that local police or sheriff is likely to steal your stuff than a robber. Seriously poor statistical understanding. Civil assert forfeiture is usually used on higher dollar things: cars, large amounts of cash, etc. Whereas robbers are more likely to take stuff they can carry: electronics, stealing wallets. So while more money is taken in asset forfeiture than in theft, there are more likely far more instances of theft. We need to be much stricter on our arguments or the O'Reillys and Hannities of the world (once they take the cop cocks out of their mouth) will successfully argue against us.

  • Scarecrow & WoodChipper Repair||

    Nice argument, although your dictum "We need to be much stricter on our arguments" and your "it is absolutely not true that local police or sheriff is likely to steal your stuff than a robber." are in disagreement. You need to do a little research before laying out absolutes. [citation needed] for the goose AND gander.

  • BearOdinson||

    Steven Greenhut is a paid writer. I am a commenter. He gets paid for writing articles.
    Besides, I did put forth a logical argument why it is simply not true. I will give you that I should not have used "absolutely". I should probably have argued that it doesn't NECESSARILY follow that more money confiscated than "stolen" doesn't equal higher likelihood of police asset seizure vs"regular" criminal theft.

  • Scarecrow & WoodChipper Repair||

    What a mewling response! You called someone out for making a logical error, which may be true, then said we need to be more careful because people will take our scriblings out of context, then supplied unverified guesses as if they were absolutely true, and now you whine that you are not a professional.

    Go suck a lemon.

  • Sir Doombringer of SexBot||

    Blow it out your ass, you pig sucking idiot.

    I had several items stolen after a break in to my car. I dutifully filed a police report, then was called a few weeks later by the LAPD after they caught the guy on an unrelated charge, but wanted to confirm that some the items he was carrying were mine. I was told I would be contacted when I could pick up my property. Guess what? They never called, and after repeated calls to the LAPD, I was blown off each time. A months later, a friend's neighbor is showing off an 'almost brand new' computer he got at a police auction, the only blemish being a name engraved on the case, which of course my friend recognized as mine.

    So yeah, the police stole my shit, just like the criminals, but then they took it an extra step further and fenced my stolen goods. Therefore, the police are worse than the criminals, and that's long before we even factor in their 'protect and serve' bullshit propaganda.

  • ||

    "No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."

    ...nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law"

    Illegitimate government.

  • Kant feel Pietzsche||

    So, is that what passes for an argument in your universe?

  • Jack Strawb||

    "...when in actual service in time of War or public danger;..."

    But don't you see? It's always a time, now, of public danger.

  • Hank Phillips||

    New discoveries also show that government looting is what causes recessions, as recorded by Adam Smith in 1775. Disraeli's "hungry forties" were the result of cash flowing from civil government to fund the Opium War attacks on China, repeated in the 1850s. The Panic of 1893 blew up into a Great Depression when the looter Congress voted an income tax soon happily overturned. Herbert Hoover's executive order allowing looter state governments to use federal tax returns of corporations to enforce state income tax assessments closed every bank in the nation until FDR was sworn in. Money "laundering" legislation to stop the thwarting of parasites caused the Clinton Crash, and similar enactments the Bush-Reagan crash of 1987. Every AML move is a government grab at purses and data from Bush's 2007 connivance with state governments sharply increased the coercive take of GDP, causing recession that just destroyed banks, pension funds, companies and savings is the result. Flash Crashes are now the leper's bell of the approaching looter, and recent WSJ graphs make this undeniable.

  • ||

    The slow creeping inevitability of tyranny warned about. It's here.

  • ||

    Sooooo.

    Cops can now kill thanks to an absurdly loose definition of what constitutes 'fearing for their lives' and now they can steal because they discovered they're addicted to revenues stolen from people?

    Niiiice.

  • Lorenzo Zoil||

    Let me get this straight. The police are arguing that they must be allowed to continue violating the 5th Amendment because it represents a portion of their income? Do I have that right? Is this justifiable precedent for robbing my neighbors of their earned assets? After all, I need an increase in revenues.

  • MSimon||

    Don't steal. The government HATES the competition.

  • Ted S.||

    Why do you think they're going after Draft Kings and Fan Duel?

  • Lorenzo Zoil||

    Damn government monopolies, won't even let us have a piece of crime.

  • Ted S.||

    Finally? They've been covering it for some time.

  • Win Bear||

    Isn't it a bit odd to illustrate an article about asset seizure in the US with a picture of a Canadian police car?

    http://www.abbypd.ca/Operation-Reclamation

    I suppose on the plus side, this illustrates that this kind of madness isn't limited to the US.

  • John C. Randolph||

    IJ gave California a "C+"? What the FUCK?

    -jcr

  • Lorenzo Zoil||

    They're rating system is only for the efforts taken to reduce civil forfeiture via legislation. Not, rated by the scope and depth of its use by each state. Some states have fewer laws largely because there's less history of abuse.

  • libertatem prius||

    Cops are pretty much bad people by definition. They place the law above morality or personal conscious. They literally act like mindless robots (criminal robots) who act without any regard to right or wrong. How can anyone with an ounce of decency or honor blindly obey “orders” or “laws,” when doing so would violate morality and common decency in most instances. Whatever difference had existed between cops and criminals has effectively vanished these days to be sure.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online