Civil asset forfeiture laws allow law enforcement to seize cash or property from people they suspect of criminal activity. This is done before the person is convicted of any crime. In some cases, police never press any criminal charges at all.
The victim of a forfeiture can challenge it, but to do so they must prove that the asset was not involved in criminal activity. If the victim can’t prove that, the law enforcement agency gets to keep the asset. The proceeds from these seizures are often used to increase police budgets outside the usual legislative process.
Here in New Mexico, lawmakers all but ended civil asset forfeitures in 2015. Now, police can only seize property through a criminal court. However, federal law enforcement can still engage in the practice.
When our law was passed, police and prosecutors predicted that criminal organizations would become even more powerful. Money laundering and cash exchanges would skyrocket in New Mexico, they predicted.
Now, a new study by a public interest law firm called the Institute for Justice indicates that reining in forfeitures does not result in increased criminal activity.
When the researchers compared New Mexico’s arrest and offense rates, they found no increase after the law was passed. That was true of crime overall and of drug offenses and drunk driving specifically. And, New Mexico experienced no increase in crime compared to Texas or Colorado.
These seizures are not targeting drug kingpins or organized crime
The Institute for Justice study found, among other things, that the average amount of a civil asset forfeiture in 21 states was $1,276. (Those 21 states were the only ones where reliable information was available.) In many of those states, the average amount was as low as $423 (Michigan) and $369 (Pennsylvania), although this average did not include seizures of property as opposed to cash.
“That’s not drug dealer money,” commented the study’s author. She also said that the group expected the average seizure amount to be low but were still shocked at the numbers.
According to ProPublica’s analysis, police often intentionally target people with low-dollar seizures. This is because the seizures are much less likely to be challenged.
The seized money doesn’t necessarily go to crime victims
Proponents of civil asset forfeiture say not only that it fights crime and increases law enforcement capacity but also that the money goes to crime victims. For example, the U.S. Justice Department has claimed that millions of dollars in seized assets have been distributed to crime victims.
The study found that, while it is true that millions have been distributed, the Justice Department actually distributes less than a third of the assets it seizes. And, in the 15 states where information was available, most apparently distribute little or no money to crime victims. That said, some states do require the money to be spent on victim compensation.
The study also found that the seized money usually goes directly into police budgets. There, it is used at the department’s discretion. In one New Mexico case, a sheriff used $4,600 in seized cash for an awards banquet. In Florida, one sheriff used $70,000 in seized cash to buy a car for his personal use.
In Philadelphia, the prosecutor’s office once had a policy of targeting low-income residents’ homes for seizure when it could be shown that a resident had sold a small quantity of drugs from the home.
In other cases, police have seized people’s vehicles over a single drug deal or when a drug-sniffing dog detected that drugs had once been present. In one such case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that civil asset forfeitures cannot be excessive, or they violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Despite a growing outcry over civil asset forfeiture, it is possible that it will become even more common in upcoming years. This is because some cities and states are attempting to reduce their spending on law enforcement in response to civil justice protests. Law enforcement may respond by increasing civil asset forfeiture in order to maintain their previous funding.