Arlington, Va.—A new Institute for Justice study (PDF) finds the nation’s largest forfeiture program does not help police fight crime. Instead, the study indicates police use forfeiture to boost revenue—in other words, to police for profit. The IJ study, “Fighting Crime or Raising Revenue? Testing Opposing Views of Forfeiture,” combines local crime, drug use and economic data from a variety of federal sources with more than a decade’s worth of data from the Department of Justice’s equitable sharing program. Equitable sharing lets state and local law enforcement cooperate with the Drug Enforcement Administration and other DOJ agencies on forfeiture cases and receive up to 80% of the proceeds.
The study—the most extensive and sophisticated of its kind—calls into question whether distributing billions of dollars in forfeiture proceeds improves police effectiveness. The new evidence undercuts claims by prominent forfeiture supporters, such as former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who called forfeiture an “important tool that can be used to combat crime, particularly drug abuse,” and Attorney General William Barr, who, while acknowledging “problems and potential abuses,” called forfeiture “a valuable tool in law enforcement.”
Specifically, the study finds:
- More forfeiture proceeds do not translate into more crimes solved, despite claims forfeiture gives law enforcement more resources to fight crime.
- More forfeiture proceeds also do not mean less drug use, even though forfeiture supposedly rids the streets of drugs by crippling drug dealers and cartels financially.
- When local economies suffer, forfeiture activity increases, suggesting police make greater use of forfeiture when local budgets are tight. A 1 percentage point increase in local unemployment—a standard proxy for fiscal stress—is associated with a statistically significant 9 percentage point increase in seizures of property for forfeiture.
“These results add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that forfeiture’s value in crime fighting is exaggerated and that police do use forfeiture to raise revenue,” said Dr. Brian Kelly, associate professor of economics at Seattle University and the study’s author. “Given this evidence and the serious civil liberties concerns raised by forfeiture, forfeiture proponents should bear the burden of proof when opposing reforms that would keep police focused on fighting crime, not raising revenue.”
The scale of federal forfeiture is vast. Between 2001 and 2017, the federal government’s two main forfeiture funds took in close to $40 billion, and the funds’ net assets have surpassed $4 billion in every year since 2013. From 2000 to 2016, the DOJ’s equitable sharing program made more than 660,000 distributions totaling over $6.8 billion to state and local law enforcement. Distributions fell following modest reforms introduced by former Attorney General Eric Holder in 2015. However, former Attorney General Sessions reversed the Holder reforms in 2017. Detailed data following this reversal are not yet available.
“This study shows policymakers can undertake serious and much-needed forfeiture reforms without jeopardizing police effectiveness,” said Lee McGrath, IJ’s senior legislative counsel. “Congress should abolish equitable sharing, and in the meantime, states should opt out of the program. And lawmakers should eliminate the financial incentives in both state and federal forfeiture laws that encourage the pursuit of revenue over the pursuit of justice.”
Since the Institute for Justice began its End Forfeiture initiative in 2010, 32 states and the District of Columbia have enacted forfeiture reforms. Seven states and the district have largely opted out of equitable sharing, limiting law enforcement’s ability to receive funding through the program and making it harder for law enforcement to circumvent state civil forfeiture laws. And in 2015, New Mexico abolished civil forfeiture, replacing it with criminal forfeiture and requiring that all forfeiture proceeds be deposited in the state’s general fund. In February, IJ secured a landmark victory in Timbs v. Indiana, where the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that state civil forfeiture cases are bound by the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “excessive fines.”
This study was made possible through the support of the John Templeton Foundation.