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A Monumental Step Forward In Civil Forfeiture Research

Five years ago, IJ’s strategic research program set the standard for civil forfeiture research with Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture. That report helped put the issue on the map and quickly became the go-to source for journalists, advocates and policymakers.

Now we have raised the bar. The second edition of Policing for Profit, released in November, is more than just updated. It is vastly expanded, assembling data from more than 200 public records requests that generated
1.5 million pages of forfeiture documents. Stacked, those documents would rival the Washington Monument in height. It is the most comprehensive report of civil forfeiture law statistics yet compiled.

Like the first edition, the updated report breaks down exactly what is wrong with civil forfeiture—a legal fiction that allows law enforcement to take property from people without convicting or even charging them with a crime and then, in most places, to keep some or all of the proceeds. But this edition makes an even stronger case for reform with new and expanded features:

  • State profiles and law grades describe each state’s civil forfeiture laws and provide the best data available on how those laws are used. The profiles also explain how states stack up on equitable sharing, the controversial federal program that allows state and local law enforcement agencies to circumvent their own states’ laws and forfeit under federal law instead.
  •  Extensive data enables deeper analysis of national trends, including comparisons of civil and criminal forfeiture (the U.S. Department of Justice prefers easier civil procedures that don’t require a conviction to criminal procedures that do by a remarkable margin of 87 percent to 13 percent) and an examination of a new federal policy on equitable sharing (spoiler: it is unlikely to change much).
  •  A new breakdown of forfeiture reporting laws documents the appalling lack of public transparency regarding law enforcement’s use of forfeiture and expenditures from forfeiture funds.

Creating this report took much toil by many at IJ, most notably my co-authors, Director of Strategic Research Dick Carpenter, Senior Research Analyst Angela C. Erickson and Research Analyst Jennifer McDonald; IJ attorneys Wesley Hottot and Keith Diggs; Research Editor Mindy Menjou, and Production and Design Associate Laura Maurice.

Yet for all that is new and improved with this edition, the national picture for civil forfeiture looks depressingly familiar. Forfeiture use continues to explode, fueled by laws that reward law enforcement for taking property. At the federal level, annual revenue grew from less than $500 million in 2001 to more than $5 billion in 2014—a tenfold increase in just 14 years. Fourteen states’ combined forfeiture revenue more than doubled from 2002 to 2013. And when it comes to protecting property owners, most civil forfeiture laws fail to make the grade: 35 states earn a D+ or worse, and the federal government earns a D-.

Momentum is certainly shifting, though, against civil forfeiture, making real reform within reach. New Mexico and the District of Columbia earn high marks thanks to new laws that boosted property rights protections and eliminated the profit incentive. Indeed, this second edition comes at a critical time, when interest in civil forfeiture—from the public, media and lawmakers—is stronger than ever. And now we have a better tool than ever to show the dire need for reform and point the way toward getting it done.

Lisa Knepper is an IJ director of strategic research.

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