The smallest state in the Union can rake in big money from asset forfeiture.
Since 2003, law enforcement in Rhode Island has hauled in $15.7 million using the state’s asset forfeiture laws. But most of the cases were not targeting drug kingpins. Between 2003 and 2013, the average value of forfeited property was $4,142. Almost 40 percent of these cases affected property valued at less than $1,000. Only 12 out of almost 3,800 incidents involved property worth more than $100,000.
Last year, 22 police departments seized more than $1.3 million from 306 incidents. But less than half of these actually led to a conviction. In fact, under civil forfeiture, the government can take property from people never convicted of a crime, or even charged with one. Only a handful of states (including, most recently, Minnesota) actually require a criminal conviction to forfeit property.
According to the Institute for Justice’s survey of America’s civil forfeiture laws, “Policing for Profit,” Rhode Island’s laws are in dire need of reform. To forfeit property, the government only needs to show probable cause, an incredibly low standard of proof. Only nine other states require such little evidence. Not only that, to retrieve property, an owner has to bear the burden of proof—they are considered guilty until proven innocent. As one criminal defense attorney put it, “The playing field is not level. The government has all the leverage.”
Civil forfeiture in Rhode Island also provides a tantalizing incentive to police for profit. Law enforcement can keep up to 90 percent of the proceeds from forfeited property. As the police chief for Pawtucket, the fourth largest city in the Ocean State, put it, “These assets have been a godsend.”
— Nick Sibilla
Nick Sibilla is a writer at the Institute for Justice