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Rhode Island earns a D- for its civil forfeiture laws:

  • Low bar to forfeit and no conviction required
  • Poor protections for innocent third-party property owners
  • 90% of forfeiture proceeds go to law enforcement

State Forfeiture Laws

Rhode Island has awful civil forfeiture laws, earning a D- grade. As in every state, law enforcement need only show probable cause to seize property. But for property to be returned in Rhode Island, it is up to owners to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that their property is not forfeitable. Individuals making innocent owner claims also bear the burden of proving that they had no involvement in the illegal use of their property in order to recover it. Finally, Rhode Island law enforcement agencies retain 90 percent of all forfeiture proceeds, a generous incentive to wield their forfeiture powers.

Law enforcement agencies in Rhode Island are required to report their forfeitures to the state treasurer and attorney general, who then aggregate the data and provide annual reports to the Legislature. Disappointingly, these reports are not available online. Law enforcement agencies reportedly forfeited more than $8.3 million between 2009 and 2014, averaging almost $1.4 million per calendar year.

Show State Law Sources
Standard of proof

Government must show probable cause for seizure and the owner must show that the property is not forfeitable by a preponderance of the evidence.

21 R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-5.04.2(p).

Innocent owner burden

Owner.

21 R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-5.04.2(p).

Profit incentive

90 percent.

21 R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-5.04(b)(3).

Reporting requirements

Agencies are required to provide annual forfeiture reports to the state treasurer, and the treasurer and attorney general must submit aggregate annual forfeiture reports to the state Legislature.

21 R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-5.04(d); 7 R.I. Gen. Laws § 15-4.1(e).

Other sources

U.S. Department of Justice Office of Public Affairs. (2015). Google forfeits $500 million generated by online ads & prescription drug sales by Canadian online pharmacies [Press release]. Retrieved from http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/google-forfeits-500-million-generated-online-ads-prescription-drug-sales-canadian-online.

Office of U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. (2013). U.S. Department of Justice grants RI cities flexibility to use Google settlement funds to stabilize pensions [Press release]. Retrieved from http://www.whitehouse.senate.gov/news/release/us-department-of-justice-grants-ri-cities-flexibility-to-use-google-settlement-funds-to-stabilize-pensions.

State Forfeiture Data

Reported Forfeiture Proceeds

Year Property Type Local Police State Police Other Agencies Total
2009
Currency $861,770 $138,389 $1,409 $1,001,567
All Other Property $546,588 $15,214 $0 $561,802
Total $1,408,358 $153,603 $1,409 $1,563,370
2010
Currency $388,261 $49,751 $2,073 $440,085
All Other Property $496,234 $37,125 $0 $533,359
Total $884,495 $86,876 $2,073 $973,444
2011
Currency $530,706 $70,339 $1,693 $602,738
All Other Property $472,184 $250,702 $0 $722,887
Total $1,002,890 $321,042 $1,693 $1,325,625
2012
Currency $513,626 $246,161 $1,818 $761,605
All Other Property $1,135,429 $44,387 $0 $1,179,816
Total $1,649,055 $290,548 $1,818 $1,941,421
2013
Currency $491,665 $133,850 $1,480 $626,995
All Other Property $540,396 $84,368 $0 $624,764
Total $1,032,061 $218,218 $1,480 $1,251,759
2014
Currency $631,533 $134,184 $8,375 $774,092
All Other Property $407,390 $69,881 $0 $477,271
Total $1,038,923 $204,065 $8,375 1,251,363
Grand Total $7,015,782 $1,274,351 $16,848 $8,306,981
Average per year $1,169,297 $212,392 $2,808 $1,384,497

Source: Reports of calendar-year forfeitures obtained from the Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General via an Access to Public Records Act request. The data reflect the total value of forfeited property.

Rhode Island is the worst state for federal forfeiture, with over $248 million in Department of Justice equitable sharing proceeds from 2000 to 2013.

Federal Equitable Sharing

Rhode Island ranks 51st—dead last—on equitable sharing, thanks in no small part to a large 2013 payout from the Department of Justice’s equitable sharing program. Between the 2000 and 2013 calendar years, agencies in the Ocean State received more than $248 million in DOJ equitable sharing proceeds, but most of that came in a single year. In 2013, five Rhode Island agencies split a $229 million payout from the DOJ—the spoils of participating in a task force whose investigation resulted in a $500 million settlement agreement between Google and the federal government. Former Attorney General Holder also took the unusual step of allowing the East Providence and North Providence police departments to use $49.2 million and $20.6 million, respectively, of the proceeds to backfill police pension funds—a practice generally prohibited by the DOJ. Finally, Rhode Island agencies received almost $5.2 million in Treasury Department equitable sharing proceeds over the 2000 to 2013 fiscal years.

View Local Law Enforcement Data
YearDOJ
(calendar years)
Treasury
(fiscal years)
2000 $572,149 $8,000
2001 $406,444 $673,000
2002 $163,988 $45,000
2003 $897,074 $12,000
2004 $1,605,107 $3,458,000
2005 $880,906 $584,000
2006 $1,871,089 $6,000
2007 $984,973 $6,000
2008 $1,766,691 $63,000
2009 $1,242,657 $0
2010 $1,399,315 $98,000
2011 $4,339,622 $0
2012 $547,548 $89,000
2013 $231,417,276 $132,000
Total $248,094,838 $5,174,000
Average Per Year $17,721,060 $369,571

DOJ Equitable Sharing,
Adoptive vs. Joint, 2000-2013

Adoptions
Joint Task Forces and Investigations
Seizures
Proceeds

DOJ Equitable Sharing Proceeds, 2000-2013

Sources: Institute for Justice analysis of DOJ forfeiture data obtained by FOIA; Treasury Forfeiture Fund Accountability Reports. Data include civil and criminal forfeitures. Because DOJ figures represent calendar years and Treasury figures cover fiscal years, they cannot be added.

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