Bad Rules Make Bad Cops: Bart Wilson on The Economics of Civil Forfeiture


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"When you give [police] the power of civil asset forfeiture, they've got to choose between themselves or the public," says experimental economist Bart Wilson. "Why do we want to put them in that position?"

Civil asset forfeiture is the process whereby police seize any property or money associated with a suspected crime, often drug-related. If the owner wants the seized property back, he or she must spend an often considerable amount of time and money to prove in court that the property wasn't used in the commission of a crime. As Jacob Sullum explained earlier this month, it's easy for innocent third parties to lose thousands of dollars in the process.

In many states, the law permits police departments to auction off the seized assets and keep the cash. Critics say this system incentivizes "policing for profit" at the expense of innocent members of the community, while proponents argue that it motivates police officers to do their jobs better and funds police departments by "taxing criminals."

Wilson, a professor of economics at Chapman University, and his co-author Michael Preciado designed a study to reveal how the incentives set forth under civil forfeiture affect human behavior. In the study, one undergraduate student plays the role of law enforcement in a computer game, and three others play the roles of the public. Subjects played for real money, and Wilson says the results were overwhelming.

"It's not a few people just abusing it. This is the modal tendency: to abuse," says Wilson, who points out that subjects are more likely than not to help others in games when there's no financial cost of doing so. "For me, that's pretty strong evidence that it's the rules that are creating the incentives for them to police for profit."

To see a fuller explanation of the study's methodology and its results, watch the video above.

Approximately 8 minutes. Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Camera by Alex Manning.

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