Pubdate: Tue, 10 Nov 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company
Author: Christopher Ingraham


Critics of Practice Blame Ailing Economy, Profit Motive

Recent years have brought public scrutiny on a controversial law 
enforcement practice known as civil asset forfeiture, which lets 
police seize and keep cash and property from people who are never 
convicted of- and in many cases never charged with - wrongdoing. A 
new report Tuesday from the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit civil 
liberties law firm, found that there has been a "meteoric, 
exponential increase" in the use of the practice in the past decade.

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 Justice 
Department and the Treasury Department. In 2008, there was less than 
$1.5 billion in the combined asset-forfeiture funds of Justice and 
Treasury, according to the report. But by 2014, that number had 
tripled, to about $4.5 billion.

In an e-mail, a Justice Department spokesman pointed out that big 
cases such as the $1.7 billion Bernard Madoff judgment and a $1.2 
billion case associated with Toyota have led to large deposits to 
forfeiture funds in a single year. It's not possible to determine 
precisely how much of the deposits have been subsequently released to victims.

"Even without those major cases, the overall trend is still upward," 
said Lisa Knepper, a co-author of the report.

One possible explanation for the recent rise is that "the years 2008 
to 2014 were some lean economic years," co-author Dick Carpenter said 
in an interview. "Forfeiture is an attractive way to keep revenue 
streams flowing when budgets are tight."

Critics of the system say that the increase in forfeiture activity is 
also largely attributable to the profit motive created by laws that 
allow police to keep some or all of the assets they seize. "It's 
possible that the spike is due to a growing recognition by law 
enforcement of the profitability of forfeiture," Carpenter said.

In one case represented by the Institute for Justice, a drug task 
force seized $11,000 from a college student at an airport because his 
luggage smelled like marijuana.

Civil asset forfeiture's roots lie in the war on drugs. In the 1980s, 
law enforcement officers said they needed a tool to help capture 
cartel leaders and largescale drug traffickers. So Congress created 
the Justice Department's Asset Forfeiture Fund.

One feature was that it allowed agencies to keep the cash and 
property they seized, creating something of a profit incentive. "For 
the first time, agencies could obtain a financial benefit from the 
proceeds of forfeited properties, using funds to do everything from 
purchase vehicles to pay overtime," the report says.

In some states, including New Mexico and Missouri, 100 percent of 
seized assets go to state general funds rather than to law 
enforcement coffers. But in 25 states and at the federal level, 
police get to keep 100 percent of the assets they seize. "Allowing 
law-enforcement agencies to reap financial benefits from forfeitures 
encourages the pursuit of property over the impartial administration 
of justice," the report says.

According to the Institute for Justice report, in most states the 
typical forfeiture amount is small. The median forfeiture case in 
Illinois is worth $530, according to the report. In Tennessee, it's 
$502; in Minnesota, $451.

The Justice Department maintains that civil forfeiture is an 
important crime-fighting tool in cases when a criminal prosecution 
may not be possible. "Civil forfeiture enables the government to 
recover property when criminal prosecution of the possessor of the 
property may not be appropriate or feasible," according to written 
testimony presented to Congress earlier this year.

The testimony points to high-profile cases such as that of Kenneth 
Lay, who played a leading role in the corruption scandal that led to 
the downfall of Enron and died before he could be criminally 
sentenced, and the seizure of dozens of pit bulls from NFL player 
Michael Vick's dogfighting operation.

"Appropriate use of asset forfeiture law allows the Justice 
Department to safeguard the integrity, security and stability of our 
nation's financial system and provides unique means to go after 
criminal and terrorist organizations, while protecting the civil 
liberties of all Americans," Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr 
said by e-mail. "As we continue our comprehensive review of the 
asset-forfeiture program, we will stay focused on deterring criminal 
activity, returning the proceeds of crime to victims and defending 
the rights of our citizens."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom