March 19, 2021

Mounting Evidence Makes Clear: Forfeiture Doesn’t Work

As IJ’s cases have demonstrated time and again, civil forfeiture is a fundamental threat to the property and due process rights of all Americans. More than that, mounting evidence shows those threats come without any real payoff: Forfeiture simply doesn’t work.

The latest evidence comes from a new IJ strategic research report by Seattle University economist Dr. Brian Kelly. Titled Does Forfeiture Work? Evidence from the States, the report explores whether forfeiture is an effective crime-fighting tool using data from Arizona, Hawaii, Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota. These five states use forfeiture extensively and return all or nearly all of the proceeds to law enforcement coffers, creating a strong financial incentive to forfeit property—and a test of whether forfeiture revenue improves law enforcement’s ability to fight crime.

This question lies at the heart of the policy debate over forfeiture. Critics, including IJ, have long argued that giving forfeiture proceeds to law enforcement creates improper incentives and a conflict of interest. Law enforcement counters that this is precisely the point: Forfeiture turns criminals’ cash into greater resources to fight crime. 

Dr. Kelly’s new study shows the critics have the better of the argument. More forfeiture proceeds do not help police solve more crimes and may, perversely, make police less effective at solving violent crimes. Nor does more forfeiture money appear to thwart the illicit drug trade, as Dr. Kelly found greater proceeds do not equate to less drug use. 

On the contrary, the report finds evidence that police really do use forfeiture to police for profit, ramping up forfeiture activity when economic times are tight. A one percentage point increase in unemployment, a common measure of economic health, is associated with an 11% to 12% increase in forfeiture activity. 

These findings are consistent with an earlier IJ study by Dr. Kelly, which examined the Department of Justice’s equitable sharing program. They are also in line with our recent research showing that New Mexico’s reforms ending civil forfeiture and the financial incentive failed to produce even a ripple of crime, let alone the tidal wave foretold by opponents. 

That forfeiture doesn’t work but police do use it for revenue would be concerning enough at the best of times. But it is particularly troubling now as local governments face pandemic-related budget shortfalls as well as calls to defund police, which could increase police reliance on forfeiture proceeds. 

Results are clear: We can end civil forfeiture and the financial incentive without jeopardizing public safety. IJ is working tirelessly to get this message out to legislatures, the courts, and the court of public opinion. Police don’t need forfeiture to do their jobs—and allowing them to supplement their budgets using forfeiture is no way to improve police accountability.

Mindy Menjou is IJ’s research publications manager.

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