WASHINGTON—The U.S. Department of Justice announced new contracts to help its law enforcement agencies manage asset forfeiture investigations. The awards, to multiple private companies, total $6.24 billion over a five-year period. The government’s request for proposal (RFP) states that the contractors will “increase the capacity” for DOJ’s Asset Forfeiture Management Staff. The amounts awarded slightly exceed the six-billion-dollar “maximum aggregate amount” authorized in the RFP.
From 2000 to 2019, federal agencies generated at least $45.7 billion in forfeiture revenue, with nearly $31 billion deposited into DOJ’s Assets Forfeiture Fund and nearly $15 billion deposited into the Treasury Forfeiture Fund. Expenditures from the two funds are controlled by DOJ and Treasury, respectively, and can be made by law-enforcement agencies without congressional appropriation.
“The sheer size of these contracts demonstrates how forfeiture has become a big business for federal law enforcement,” said Dan Alban, Senior Attorney and Director of IJ’s National Initiative to End Forfeiture Abuse. “And it’s not just DOJ and DHS that have become addicted to forfeiture dollars; there’s now an entire forfeiture-industrial complex dependent on the feds continuing these predatory practices. These are six billion reasons we need civil forfeiture reform now. Congress must act to prevent law enforcement from treating ordinary Americans like ATMs.”
In March, Congress reintroduced an enhanced version of the bipartisan Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act, H.R. 1525, which would enact a sweeping overhaul of federal civil forfeiture laws. The bill would remove the profit incentive that drives so many federal forfeitures, end the federal “equitable sharing” program that is used to circumvent state law protections for property rights, and eliminate the unfair administrative forfeiture process.
The vast majority of federal forfeitures are civil in nature, meaning that the government is not required to charge the owner with a crime, let alone secure a conviction, in order to permanently keep their property. From 2000 to 2019, 84% of DOJ forfeitures were civil forfeitures, while from 2000 to 2016, 98% of Treasury forfeitures were civil forfeitures. The vast majority of those civil forfeitures—93% of DOJ’s and 98% of Treasury’s—were processed administratively, meaning property owners never got their day in court.
While forfeiture is a multibillion-dollar business for law enforcement, most seizures and forfeitures are quite small. From 2015 to 2019, half of all DOJ currency forfeitures were worth less than $12,090. From 2015 to 2016, half of Treasury’s currency forfeitures were worth less than $7,320. Those figures show how ordinary Americans—not drug lords or mafia kingpins—bear the brunt of federal forfeiture abuses.
The Institute for Justice advocates to end forfeiture through litigation, strategic research, and legislation. IJ has class action lawsuits aimed at stopping suspicionless seizures of cash at airports, roadside seizures on highways, and the FBI’s unconstitutional forfeiture notices. IJ’s landmark study looking at state and federal forfeiture, Policing for Profit, is now in its third edition. IJ’s advocacy has led to Maine, Nebraska, and New Mexico ending civil forfeiture and replacing it with criminal forfeiture.