Civil Forfeiture Laws Fail to Protect Property Owners

As the public and lawmakers have increasingly recognized forfeiture’s size, scope and potential for abuse, interest in reform is high. Since the second edition of Policing for Profit, 32 states and the federal government have adopted measures limiting forfeiture or altering its procedures. Figure 17 summarizes the types of reforms adopted since late 2015. See our State Profiles for details of recent reforms.

Figure 17: Civil Forfeiture Reforms Since Late 2015

Unfortunately, as the map illustrates, relatively few reforms have tackled the central problems with civil forfeiture laws graded by each edition of Policing for Profit: (1) law enforcement’s financial stake in forfeiture efforts, (2) inadequate protections for innocent owners and (3) standards of proof well below the familiar “beyond a reasonable doubt” required for a criminal conviction. In the past five years, just one state has reduced (not eliminated) law enforcement’s financial incentive for forfeiture and five states have improved innocent owner protections. Seventeen states have raised the standard of proof, added a conviction provision or both.

The most common reforms have increased transparency through improved reporting (25 states). Other reforms have added procedural protections or limits on forfeiture (18 states and Congress) or imposed new limits on local participation in federal equitable sharing (eight states). Though such reforms can be steps in the right direction, much work remains to be done.

To date, no state has matched the reform adopted by New Mexico in 2015.With that reform, New Mexico addressed all three central problems with civil forfeiture: It abolished civil forfeiture, opting instead to rely on criminal forfeiture, and just as important, it directed all forfeiture proceeds—including those from other jurisdictions, such as federal equitable sharing proceeds—to the state’s general fund rather than law enforcement coffers. It also strengthened protections for innocent owners whose property may be caught up in forfeiture proceedings. And, in denying proceeds to state and local agencies, it removed any incentive for law enforcement to circumvent the new state law through federal equitable sharing.

New research indicates New Mexico’s best-in-the-nation reforms have come without any cost to public safety (see “New Research: Eliminating Civil Forfeiture Does Not Increase Crime”). Contrary to claims that abolishing civil forfeiture would worsen crime, an analysis comparing crime rates in New Mexico with those in neighboring states finds no evidence of any negative effect from New Mexico’s reform. These findings suggest other states have little to fear and much to gain from following in New Mexico’s footsteps.