Civil asset forfeiture doesn’t deter crime or reduce drug use

By Aaron Rice
June 25, 2019

The nation’s largest civil asset forfeiture program does not help police fight crime nor does it reduce drug use, two of the most common refrains from proponents of civil forfeiture. 

That is according to a new study from the non-profit Institute for Justice. While each state may have their own civil forfeiture law, the federal equitable sharing program is administered by the Department of Justice. It allows local law enforcement to cooperate on forfeiture with DOJ agencies and receive up to 80 percent of the proceeds.

This study asked the question, how is this program working and is it reaching its goals? Which is to “remove the tools of crime from criminal organizations, deprive wrongdoers of the proceeds of their crimes, recover property that may be used to compensate victims, and deter crime,” according to DOJ. 

It combined data from the program, along with local crime, drug use, and economic data from various federal sources. 

The study found: 

  • More forfeiture proceeds do not translate into more crimes solved;
  • More forfeiture proceeds also do not mean less drug use;
  • When local economies suffer, forfeiture activity increases, suggesting police make greater use of forfeiture when local budgets are tight. A 1 percentage point increase in local unemployment—a standard proxy for fiscal stress—is associated with a statistically significant 9 percentage point increase in seizures of property for forfeiture.

Mississippi has begun to make a move to scale back civil forfeiture. In 2017, the legislature let administrative forfeiture die when the law authorizing the program was not renewed. 

Previously, administrative forfeiture allowed agents of the state to take property valued under $20,000 and forfeit it by merely obtaining a warrant and providing the individual with a notice. In order to get the property back, an individual was required to file a petition in court within 30 days and incur legal fees in order to contest the forfeiture and recover such assets.

The state is still allowed to seize and keep property through civil forfeiture, a process that requires the state to go before a judge for an adjudication of whether the property should be forfeited, even if the owner does not file suit. 

And much like the federal program has not translated into less crime or drug use, the program in Mississippi has generally not led to big drug busts. In fact, if you remove one large bust from the equation, the average value of forfeited property is only $5,422 over the past 18 months. Less than 10 seizures statewide amounted to more than $60,000. One-third were for less than $1,000. 

Rather than busting drug kingpins, law enforcement is more likely seizing iPhones, guns, or small amounts of cash. 


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