Civil Forfeiture Increases as Economy Drops

October 8, 2020

Recently, many people have had their property seized without being convicted of a crime, or even charged with wrongdoing. This procedure, known as civil asset forfeiture, allows police to take cash and other property. As was recently uncovered in a report from the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit civil-liberties law firm, and reported in the Washington Post, the amounts that have been seized in recent years has skyrocketed.

The government does not measure the number of times per year that assets are seized. But one common measure of the practice is the amount of money in the asset forfeiture funds of the Department of Justice and the U.S. Treasury, the two agencies that typically perform forfeitures at the federal level. In 2008, there were less than $1.5 billion in the combined asset forfeiture funds of the Justice Department and the U.S. Treasury, according to the report. But by 2014, that number had tripled, to roughly $4.5 billion.

In one case represented by the Institute, a drug task force seized $11,000 from a college student at an airport because his luggage smelled like marijuana. They lacked evidence to charge him with any crime, but they kept the money and planned to divvy it up between 13 different law enforcement agencies, most of which had nothing to do with the actual seizure of cash.

In another case, the IRS emptied a convenience store owner’s bank account because it suspected he was depositing cash in such a way as to avoid reporting requirements for large deposits. He eventually won his money back after a lengthy court fight.

It is a sad commentary, but civil forfeiture may have a financial incentive. Once property is seized, owners must navigate a complicated set of hurdles to get it back. The more property is seized, the more income for that particular department or municipality. With the financial crisis, local governments are struggling as well. The explosion in civil forfeiture accounts likely coincides with a slowdown in other types of revenue due to the economic slowdown.