January 21, 2021

The Case for Abolishing Civil Forfeiture Has Never Been Stronger—or More Urgent

In 2015, New Mexico adopted landmark reforms abolishing civil forfeiture and ending the perverse profit incentive that rewarded law enforcement for engaging in the practice. Police and prosecutors bemoaned the new law, which was based on IJ’s model for comprehensive forfeiture reform, as a gift to criminal organizations. They predicted a tidal wave of crime. Five years later, the data are in—and the tidal wave was never even a ripple.

These groundbreaking results lie at the heart of the third edition of IJ’s flagship forfeiture study, Policing for Profit, released in December. Using sophisticated statistical techniques, IJ compared crime rates in New Mexico to those in neighboring Colorado and Texas before and after the 2015 reform. We found no increase in crime, indicating strong forfeiture reform does not compromise public safety. In short, state and federal lawmakers can safely follow New Mexico’s lead.

And they should, as the rest of Policing for Profit amply demonstrates. This new edition presents the largest ever collection of forfeiture data—17 million data points covering 45 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government—and finds that even with significant progress on the litigation and legislative fronts, forfeiture remains a massive nationwide problem. Since 2000, states and the federal government have forfeited at least $68.8 billion—that we know of. Not all states provided complete data, so this figure likely drastically undercounts forfeiture’s true scope.

To learn more about Policing for Profit, watch our video.

Not only is forfeiture big, but it simply doesn’t work. The New Mexico analysis adds to prior IJ research finding no evidence that forfeiture is an effective crime-fighting tool. Moreover, new data—available for the first time in Policing for Profit—show most forfeitures are hardly targeting major criminals like Bernie Madoff and El Chapo. In fact, data from 21 states show half of all currency forfeitures are worth less than $1,300. In a few states, the typical cash forfeiture is just a few hundred bucks.

These tiny amounts underscore the fundamental unfairness of civil forfeiture. For someone who had a few hundred dollars seized, it’s simply not worth it to hire an attorney to navigate complex civil forfeiture laws that are stacked against them at every turn. But for law enforcement, a lot of small-dollar forfeitures add up to a major windfall.

That’s why ending civil forfeiture is essential. And thanks to IJ’s efforts (see sidebar), interest in reform among the public and lawmakers has skyrocketed. Since the second edition of Policing for Profit, 32 states and the federal government have adopted reforms. While many of these new laws represent important strides, critical work remains. None have—yet—matched New Mexico’s gold-standard 2015 bill. And evidence suggests forfeitures may spike in the coming months as law enforcement agencies face budgetary pressure due to the pandemic. Forfeiture reform has never been more urgent.

Fortunately, with the third edition of Policing for Profit, the case for reform has never been stronger or more tailored to each state. IJ will use this research and every tool at our disposal to, once and for all, end civil forfeiture and the profit incentive that fuels it.

Lisa Knepper is an IJ senior director of strategic research.

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