In 2019, nursing student and single mother Stephanie Wilson had not one, but two cars seized by the Detroit Police Department, losing the first one forever.1 That same year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Transportation Security Administration seized retiree Terry Rolin’s life savings of $82,373 from his daughter as she passed through Pittsburgh International Airport on her way to open a joint bank account for him.2 Three years earlier and about 1,000 miles away, a sheriff’s deputy in rural Muskogee, Oklahoma, seized more than $53,000 from Eh Wah, the tour manager for a Burmese Christian musical act, during a routine traffic stop; the funds were concert proceeds and donations intended to support Burmese Christian refugees and Thai orphans.3 None of these victims were convicted of any crime.
Their stories illustrate a nationwide problem: civil forfeiture. Civil forfeiture allows police to seize property on the mere suspicion that it is involved in criminal activity. Prosecutors can then forfeit, or permanently keep, the property without ever charging its owner with a crime. By contrast, criminal forfeiture requires prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an owner is guilty of a crime and then, in the same proceeding, prove the property is connected to the crime.
As this report demonstrates, the cases of Stephanie Wilson, Terry Rolin and Eh Wah are not isolated incidents: Local, state and federal agencies use civil forfeiture to collectively forfeit billions of dollars each year.
Civil forfeiture laws generally make it easy for governments to forfeit property—and hard for people to fight. As this report documents, these laws typically set low standards of proof, which is the evidentiary burden prosecutors must meet to connect property to a crime. And they provide weak protections for innocent owners whose property is caught up in forfeiture but who have done nothing wrong. Most forfeiture laws also make seizing and forfeiting people’s property lucrative for law enforcement. In most states and under federal law, some or all of the proceeds from forfeiture go to law enforcement coffers. Thus, Wayne County law enforcement, federal law enforcement and Muskogee County law enforcement stood to benefit financially from forfeiting Stephanie’s cars and Terry’s and Eh Wah’s cash. Giving law enforcement this financial stake in forfeiture can distort priorities, encouraging agencies to pursue financial gain over public safety or justice, cash over crime or contraband.4 Together, civil forfeiture’s ease and financial rewards drive its use nationwide.
Despite the billions generated, our data indicate the typical individual cash forfeiture is relatively small—only a few hundred or a few thousand dollars. This suggests that, aside from a few high-profile cases, forfeiture often does not target drug kingpins or big-time financial fraudsters. More than that, the data show why it often makes little economic sense for property owners to fight. The cost of hiring an attorney—a virtual necessity in navigating complex civil forfeiture processes, where there is generally no right to counsel—often outweighs the value of seized property. This is why Stephanie abandoned her first car.5 Still, many small forfeitures such as hers can make a great deal of economic sense for law enforcement. In just two years, the Wayne County forfeiture program that claimed Stephanie’s car generated $1.2 million in revenue from 2,600 cars.6