Forfeiture Is Lucrative for Governments Nationwide

By any measure, our data show forfeiture activity is extensive nationwide. In 2018 alone, the year for which we have data from the greatest number of states, 42 states, 1 D.C. and the federal government forfeited over $3 billion. Of that, $500 million was forfeited under state law and $2.5 billion under federal law through DOJ’s and Treasury’s forfeiture programs. Looking at fewer states but over a longer period, 20 states, 2 DOJ and Treasury forfeited over $63 billion from 2002 to 2018—$21 billion under state law and nearly $42 billion under federal. The total forfeited since 2000 across all states in our database and the federal government is larger still: $68.8 billion, including over $23 billion under state law and almost $46 billion under federal.

It should be noted that the federal government shares substantial sums from the proceeds of federal forfeitures with state and local agencies that participate in its equitable sharing program. Equitable sharing allows state and local law enforcement agencies to partner with the federal government to seize and forfeit property under federal law—and receive up to 80% of the proceeds—regardless of state law (see “Equitable Sharing Creates a Giant Loophole”). Of the nearly $46 billion forfeited by the federal government since 2000, almost one-fifth of it ultimately went to state and local agencies participating in equitable sharing. This means far less money lands in federal coffers—and far more lands in state coffers—than these figures suggest.

Our dataset, though immense, also underestimates state forfeiture activity in other, more important, ways. Most obviously, we do not have revenue data for all states, nor even for most states, covering the entire 20-year study period. Some states, like Alaska, have never required any statewide reporting. 3 Many others require reporting now but did not during part or all of the study period, while Ohio, swimming against transparency’s rising tide, gutted its reporting requirements in 2012. 4 And in some states with reporting requirements, agencies fail to report as required. This has been the case in Mississippi, 5 for example, and, until recently, Kentucky. 6

Even states with a long track record of maintaining forfeiture records paint an incomplete picture. For example, many states track only drug-related forfeitures, leaving forfeitures stemming from other crimes unaccounted for. Some states track forfeiture activity merely for financial accounting reasons—not with the intent to shine a light on how agencies are using forfeiture. Rather than report the value of each forfeiture, such states typically report only the total of forfeited currency and proceeds from forfeited property that was sold. And many states report only net revenues after factoring out property maintenance expenses, like vehicle towing or repair, thus deflating the total value of property taken.

Finally, other states simply have less than optimal methods of tracking forfeiture activity. For example, Missouri prosecuting attorneys report annually but do not report on forfeitures of property seized in previous years. Arkansas and Mississippi do not consistently track whether property is forfeited (as opposed to returned) and instead estimate forfeitures using the values of seized property, which are themselves estimates. 7 These reporting variations mean a substantial chunk of revenue is missing from our data, making our estimates of state forfeiture activity undercounts.