A recent investigation by the Chicago Reader revealed that millions of dollars were seized and spent by the Chicago Police Department (CPD) as part of a secret forfeiture fund. The Reader reports:
Since 2009, the year CPD began keeping electronic records of its forfeiture accounts, the department has brought in nearly $72 million in cash and assets through civil forfeiture, keeping nearly $47 million for itself and sending on almost $18 million to the Cook County state’s attorney’s office and almost $7.2 million to the Illinois State Police, according to our analysis of CPD records.
The revenue from civil forfeiture is different because it “isn’t scrutinized by the City Council, nor must CPD make any public disclosures about how these funds are spent.” Although the amount of revenue is small compared to the department’s overall budget, it still represents a significant amount.
In 2015, the bureau received a little more than $77 million in its official budget. That year’s forfeiture income was close to $4.7 million, equal to 6 percent of its total public budget. On top of that, the forfeiture fund was already flush with cash from previous years; at the end of 2015, the bureau had more than $16 million in its forfeiture checking and savings accounts, according to deposit records obtained by the Reader.
That money can come from innocent property owners like Willie Mae Swansey, a 72-year-old grandmother whose car was seized as part of her son’s arrest. After 10 court hearings over 28 months, the court forfeited her car, despite her son’s willingness to testify that he stole the keys prior to his arrest.
The Chicago Police Department isn’t the only law enforcement agency in Illinois using a secret forfeiture fund. The investigation also found that the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office, “expected forfeiture revenue of $4.96 million to pay the salaries and benefits of the 41 full-time employees of its forfeiture unit.”
IJ Legislative Counsel Lee McGrath said:
“When a government agency is allowed to handle the forfeiture proceeds it brings in—as is the case with both CPD and the Cook County state’s attorney’s office—it controls both the sword and the purse, like an army that is also its own taxing authority.”
The Chicago Reader’s report was the culmination of more than two years of research and numerous Freedom of Information Act requests. As noted in the Institute for Justice’s report Policing for Profit, obtaining information about civil forfeiture using public records requests can be a costly and time-consuming process, even with a team of professional researchers.