Arlington, Va.—It’s called policing for profit and it’s happening all across America. Maryland earned an average grade for its laws and practices compared to other states, demonstrating need for improvement.
Under a practice called “civil forfeiture,” police and prosecutors’ offices seize private property—often without ever charging the owners with a crime, much less convicting them of one—then keep or sell what they’ve taken and use the profits to fund their budgets. And considering law enforcement officials in most states don’t report the value of what they collect or how that bounty is spent, the issue raises serious questions about both government transparency and accountability.
Under state and federal civil asset forfeiture laws, law enforcement agencies can seize and keep property suspected of involvement in criminal activity. Unlike criminal asset forfeiture, however, with civil forfeiture, a property owner need not be found guilty of a crime—or even charged—to permanently lose her cash, car, home or other property.
According to the Institute for Justice—whose fight against eminent domain abuse raised that issue to national prominence—civil asset forfeiture is one of the worst abuses of property rights in our nation today. The Institute for Justice today released a first-of-its-kind national study on civil forfeiture abuse. The report—Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture (http://www.ij.org/PolicingForProfitPDF)—is the most comprehensive national study to examine the use and abuse of civil asset forfeiture and the first study to grade the civil forfeiture laws of all 50 states and the federal government. The report finds, not surprisingly, that by giving law enforcement a direct financial incentive in pursuing forfeitures and stacking the legal deck against property owners, most state and federal laws encourage policing for profit rather than seeking the neutral administration of justice. (For additional resources on this report, visit: http://www.ij.org/PolicingForProfit. For a brief video on this topic, visit: www.ij.org/Forfeiture.)
Laws Stacked Against Property Owners
The report demonstrates that legal procedures make civil forfeiture relatively easy for most governments and difficult for many property owners to fight. The vast majority of states and the federal government use a standard of proof—what is needed to successfully prosecute a forfeiture action—lower than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard required to prove an individual was guilty of the criminal activity that supposedly justified the taking of his property. Given that situation, it is not surprising that upwards of 80 percent of forfeitures at the federal level occur absent a prosecution.
“Americans are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but civil forfeiture turns that principle on its head,” said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Scott Bullock, a co-author of the report. “With civil forfeiture, your property is guilty until you prove it innocent.”
Grading Forfeiture Laws and How Government Evades Them
In Policing for Profit, IJ grades each state on its forfeiture laws and other measures of abuse. Only three states (Maine, North Dakota and Vermont) earned a grade of B or better.
Federal forfeiture law makes the problem worse with so-called “equitable sharing.” Under these arrangements, state officials can hand over forfeiture prosecutions to the federal government and then receive up to 80 percent of the proceeds—even when state law bans or limits the profit incentive. Equitable sharing payments to states have nearly doubled from 2000 to 2008, from a little more than $200 million to $400 million.
Policing for Profit was co-authored by IJ’s Scott Bullock and criminal justice researchers Drs. Marian Williams and Jefferson Holcomb of Appalachian State University and Tomislav Kovandzic of the University of Texas at Dallas. The university professors examined equitable sharing data and found clear evidence that law enforcement is acting in pursuit of profit. When state laws make forfeiture harder and less profitable, state and local law enforcement engages in more equitable sharing to circumvent the state laws.
Maryland’s Law & Practices
Maryland earned average marks for its civil forfeiture laws and practices according to IJ’s rankings. Procedurally, Maryland does not afford strong protections to property owners swept up in civil forfeiture, but it does eliminate the profit incentive. Property can be forfeited under a preponderance of the evidence standard; the government must merely prove it is more likely than not that the property was involved in a crime, a far lower standard than beyond a reasonable doubt. Property owners are effectively “guilty until proven innocent”: To contest a seizure, the property owner must prove that the property was wrongfully seized or that the owner did not have actual knowledge of the conduct. But Maryland civil forfeiture law, unlike most other states, avoids creating a profit incentive for local law enforcement. All proceeds from civil forfeiture flow to the state general fund or the local governing body. With the profit incentive eliminated under state law, Maryland law enforcement can and does still obtain forfeited property by working with federal authorities through adoption and equitable sharing. Despite the mandate that forfeiture proceeds go the general fund, state law enforcement, working with their federal partners, received more than $50 million in forfeiture revenue from 2000 to 2008. This end-run around state forfeiture law was challenged in court, but the Maryland Court of Appeals ratified the practice of equitable sharing even when law enforcement failed to obtain a court order permitting the use of the loophole. For analysis of Maryland’s ranking, visit: http://www.ij.org/PolicingForProfit/MD.
To end policing for profit, the Institute for Justice recommends that, first, law enforcement should be required to convict people before taking their property. Law enforcement agencies could still prosecute criminals and forfeit their ill-gotten possessions—but the rights of innocent property owners would be protected. Second, police and prosecutors shouldn’t be paid on commission, and state and local law enforcement should not be permitted to do an end-run around Maryland law. Equitable sharing must be abolished so that law enforcement can no longer use it to evade the limits of state law continue pocketing forfeiture money.