Sidebar: Civil Forfeiture and the Temptation to Seize

Critics of civil forfeiture argue that giving law enforcement a financial stake in seizures encourages agencies to put revenue generation ahead of public safety or justice. Chapman University economist Bart J. Wilson and co-author Michael Preciado designed a cutting-edge experiment to see whether the financial incentives baked into many civil forfeiture laws influence behavior. 1 Results were clear: Civil forfeiture creates a strong temptation for law enforcement agencies to seize property to enhance their budgets, even at the expense of other priorities.

Thus the problem with civil forfeiture is less “bad apples” among officers than it is the laws themselves. Indeed, some law enforcement officials have openly acknowledged the powerful temptations civil forfeiture creates:

Civil Forfeiture Is a “Gold Mine”

“Now think about this, this is a gold mine, a gold mine. You can seize a house, not a vehicle. They seize the house and it goes on to say that there’s no judiciary involved.”

—Harry S. “Pete” Connelly, Jr., former Las Cruces, N.M., city attorney 2

“Toys for Police”

“It’s usually based on a need—well, I take that back. There’s some limitations on it. … Actually, there’s not really on the forfeiture stuff. We just usually base it on something that would be nice to have that we can’t get in the budget, for instance. We try not to use it for things that we need to depend on because we need to have those purchased. It’s kind of like pennies from heaven—it gets you a toy or something that you need is the way that we typically look at it to be perfectly honest.”

—Kenneth M. Burton, Columbia, Mo., Police Chief 3

“Don’t Ruin Forfeitures For All Of Us”

An Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys Advisory Council training presentation cautioned against succumbing to the temptation to “just start seizing everything in sight.” Such behavior could “screw things up” and “ruin forfeitures for all of us.” 4

Continue Reading: Sidebar: Philadelphia’s Civil Forfeiture Machine Grinds Property Owners Down