Friday, November 20, 2015

Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture By Law Enforcement, Giving Them Strong Financial Incentives To Swipe Property Regardless Of Owner's Innocence Or Guilt

From a recent press release issued by the non-profit civil liberties law firm Institute for Justice:
  • Draconian state and federal civil forfeiture laws are fueling an unprecedented rise in property seizures nationwide, according to a new national study—and federal laws are among the nation’s worst. The study provides the most comprehensive examination of civil forfeiture laws and forfeiture statistics yet compiled.

    The federal government’s civil forfeiture scheme scores a D- in the new report, Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture, released [] by the Institute for Justice. In addition to meager protections for property and due process rights, federal law gives law enforcement a strong financial incentive to take property regardless of the owner’s guilt or innocence—100 percent of the proceeds.

    Most state laws likewise fail to make the grade: 35 states receive a D+ or worse, demonstrating the poor state of civil forfeiture laws across the country. Only two states receive worse grades than the federal government.

    “Research has shown that the financial incentives baked into civil forfeiture laws influence law enforcement behavior,” said Dick M. Carpenter II, Ph.D., an IJ director of strategic research and one of Policing for Profit’s co-authors. “When laws make taking property relatively easy and lucrative for law enforcement, it should be no surprise to see agencies take advantage.”

    Under civil forfeiture laws, police and prosecutors can seize cash, cars, homes and other property on the mere suspicion that it is connected to criminal activity. No charges or convictions are required. And once property is seized, owners must navigate a confusing, complex and often expensive legal process to try to win it back before it is forfeited. Worst of all, most civil forfeiture laws give law enforcement agencies a powerful incentive to take property: a cut, or even all, of forfeiture proceeds. Such financial incentives, combined with weak protections for property owners, increasingly put people’s property at risk.

    Nationwide, forfeiture revenue has exploded. Since 2001, annual federal forfeiture revenue has increased from less than $500 million to more than $5 billion in 2014—a tenfold increase in just 14 years. And available data show forfeiture revenue across 14 states more than doubling from 2002 to 2013.

    The study also finds that when police and prosecutors take property, they overwhelmingly prefer civil forfeiture to its criminal counterpart. Civil forfeiture is easier for law enforcement because it does not require a conviction, while criminal forfeiture does. Data obtained by IJ reveal that the Department of Justice took advantage of easier civil procedures in 87 percent of forfeiture cases from 1997 to 2013.

    State and local law enforcement can also take advantage of a controversial federal forfeiture program called equitable sharing, which enables them to circumvent their own states’ laws, which are often less lucrative, and forfeit under federal law instead—getting up to 80 percent of the proceeds back. Policing for Profit finds that DOJ equitable sharing payments to state and local law enforcement nationwide more than tripled between 2000 and 2013, jumping from $198 million to $643 million.
For the entire press release, see TAKEN: New Report Finds Civil Forfeiture Laws Are Fueling Explosive Growth in Property Seizures (Federal Laws Among the Nation’s Worst; Annual Federal Forfeiture Take Grew Tenfold in Just 14 Years).

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