Arlington, Va.—It’s called policing for profit and it’s happening all across America. Missouri 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.
Missouri’s Law & Practices
Missouri earned average marks for its civil forfeiture laws and practices according to IJ’s rankings. Missouri law makes it very easy for law enforcement to forfeit property, but it strictly limits agencies’ ability to profit from forfeitures under state law. The weakest part of Missouri’s law is requiring the government to show only reasonable cause to believe property is related to a crime to forfeit it. That is the lowest legal standard, akin to the probable cause required for a search warrant, and much lower than beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard the government must meet for a criminal conviction. Moreover, owners are presumed guilty: When property is seized and an innocent owner has an interest in the property, the owner must intervene in the forfeiture proceedings and show he did not have actual knowledge of the criminal activity. Missouri is one of only eight states, however, where law enforcement receives none of the funds from forfeiture; all accrue to the local education system. This is a significant protection for owners, but the data from Missouri suggests that law enforcement still engages in forfeiture, seizing more than $34 million from 2001 to 2008. A key incentive to continued use of forfeiture in Missouri may be federal equitable sharing. After an investigative report in the Kansas City Star, Missouri lawmakers were awakened to a major problem that plagues other states that limit the ability of law enforcement to profit from forfeiture: federal adoption of forfeiture proceedings and equitable sharing arrangements. By 1999, more than 85 percent of forfeited property was funneled through this loophole. For analysis of Missouri’s ranking, visit: http://www.ij.org/PolicingForProfit/MO.
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 Missouri 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.