Police Should Pursue Justice, Not Profit

December 1, 2004

December 2004

Police Should Pursue Justice, Not Profit

By Tim Keller

“This collaborative study has sparked renewed interest in civil forfeiture abuse and should serve as a starting point for IJ to conduct further national studies.”

Download a copy of Policing and Prosecuting for Profit: Arizona’s Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws Violate Basic Due Process Protections (in PDF)

This fall, the Institute for Justice Arizona Chapter conducted a first-of-its-kind analysis of the profit incentives that drive the pernicious practice of civil asset forfeiture, and partnered with Arizona’s premier free-market think tank, the Goldwater Institute, to publish the findings.

Civil forfeiture actions, which arise from a legal fiction that treats inanimate objects as if the objects acted to assist in the commission of a crime, can be filed even when the property owner is never charged with a crime. Under Arizona’s forfeiture law, prosecutors and police keep confiscated assets—giving them a direct financial stake in the outcome of forfeiture proceedings and threatening to divert law enforcement priorities away from the fair and impartial administration of justice and toward the pursuit of property and profit.

Over the past four years, Arizona law enforcement agencies at both the

state and local levels have generated $64.5 million in revenue from forfeiture cases. For many agencies forfeitures constitute a sizable percentage of their budgets. For example, in 2002, the Arizona Attorney General’s office obtained more than $2 million in forfeiture revenue, most of which went to pay for regular salaries as well as overtime pay and medical benefits. Statewide, nearly one out of every five forfeited dollars spent (almost $11 million) went directly into the pockets of prosecutors and police in the form of employee compensation.

Between 2000 and 2003, Pima County nearly doubled its forfeiture revenue, collecting just over $5 million. In that same time, Pima County’s Counter Narcotics Alliance went from spending zero forfeiture dollars to supplementing its budget with over $1 million of forfeited funds. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that increased pressure to fund operations from forfeiture revenue likely contributed to the dramatic increase in forfeitures.

Many expenditures also stand out. Forfeited funds paid for $24,000 in advertising expenses and a $30,000 digital camera, and one agency spent close to $60,000 on weapons. Law enforcement officers naturally want these things, and because more forfeitures mean higher budgets to purchase them, an improper incentive is created to forfeit more and not necessarily forfeit fairly. While law enforcement is a legitimate government expense, and properly funding police should be a priority, law enforcement agencies should not rely on forfeiture funds to increase their budgets to pay for equipment, such as weapons.

Civil forfeiture is a serious assault on private property rights, not only in Arizona, but across the nation. This collaborative study has sparked renewed interest in civil forfeiture abuse and should serve as a starting point for IJ to conduct further national studies. It is time to stop this perverse practice, repeal civil forfeiture laws, and ensure that police and prosecutors make decisions that promote justice, not profit.

Tim Keller is the Institute for Justice Arizona Chapter executive director.

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