What Do States Forfeit? Cash Is King
Although state revenue trends are difficult to identify, state data do paint a rich picture of other important topics, including the types of property states seize and forfeit most often. The data suggest law enforcement is focused on taking cash and property that is easy to convert into cash, such as cars.
Across 15 states for which we have reliable property data for 2018, 1 currency—primarily cash—predominates, accounting for an average of nearly 70% of forfeited property (see Figure 5). It is followed by vehicles and then other property like weapons and electronics. Real property, such as homes, comes a distant last. In all but two states—Florida and Minnesota—currency is by far the most frequently forfeited property.
In the states where currency forfeitures predominate, as well as in many other states that report types of property forfeited at an aggregated state or agency level, currency also accounts for higher shares of forfeiture revenue, although vehicles and other property are not always reliably valued. 2 The trend would likely hold if they were, but the precise dollar-value difference between currency and non-currency forfeitures may be unreliable.
Figure 5: Forfeited Properties, 15-State Average, 2018
Note: The 15 states are Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah and Wyoming. Data may not cover the same 12-month period for all states. See data notes in State Profiles for source details.
Florida is the first exception to the “cash is king” rule. In its short history of reporting, covering 2017 and 2018, 47% of forfeited properties were vehicles 3 and another 47% were currency. But when measured in dollars, currency again reigns supreme, accounting for 83% of forfeiture revenue. These data, however, account for just 12% of Florida agencies’ total reported forfeiture proceeds, as many agencies do not report individual property values, only the total amount forfeited. 4 For this reason, they may not be representative of all forfeited properties in the state.
Minnesota is the second exception. In that state, reports show vehicle forfeitures spiking suddenly, overtaking currency forfeitures, in 2010. In that year, Minnesota first required agencies to report forfeitures related to DWI violations. 5 These account for a large proportion of vehicle forfeitures in the state—77% between 2010 and 2018—and are highly lucrative for Minnesota law enforcement. Sales of vehicles forfeited for DWI violations have accounted for over 40% of Minnesota’s state forfeiture revenues—about $33 million—since the state began tracking them. 6
Outside Florida and Minnesota, there are a couple likely reasons for currency forfeitures’ predominance. First, law enforcement may believe taking cash and other currency denies criminals the “lifeblood” of their activity and the benefit of their ill-gotten gains. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ attitude is typical: “Civil asset forfeiture takes the material support of the criminals and instead makes it the material support of law enforcement. . . . In departments across the country, funds that were once used to take lives are now being used to save lives.” 7 So, too, is the perspective of the Alabama law enforcement officials who wrote, “It would make no sense to allow those who traffic in crime to keep the proceeds of their crimes. That would reward criminality.” 8
Indeed, proponents often justify civil forfeiture by claiming it “remov[es] the proceeds of crime,” 9 thereby “weaken[ing] the criminals and the cartels,” “prevent[ing] new crimes from being committed,” 10 and “mak[ing] sure that crime does not pay.” 11 And in some states, the law presumes any cash found near drugs is drug money. 12 As one Kentucky prosecutor put it, “The more somebody screams they want that [seized] money, the more likely it is that we’re going to say, ‘Well, that’s evidence that you’re using it for trafficking.’” 13
A second possible reason currency forfeitures predominate is that cash is relatively efficient compared to other property types—easy to seize, easy to transport and store, and, crucially, easy to spend. Where many other types of property may be more difficult to transport and store after seizure and during a pending forfeiture action, cash is compact. Its value is also self-evident, while other property must be appraised. And once forfeited, cash immediately becomes revenue, available for law enforcement to spend. Less liquid property not retained for agency use must be sold, donated or destroyed—all of which comes with a cost. For more valuable property such as cars or homes, the effort required may be worthwhile. 14 But most miscellaneous personal property is unlikely to fetch much at auction—if it can be sold at all.
While the appeal of seizing cash is easy to understand, such seizures are hard to justify from a public policy standpoint. As we will discuss below, there is little evidence for forfeiture’s efficacy in “disrupt[ing] or dismantl[ing] criminal organizations” 15 or for the proposition that money taken through forfeiture increases police efficiency. 16 (See “Evidence Suggests Forfeiture Doesn’t Work.”) And there is concern, as well as anecdotal evidence, that cash’s very efficiency encourages police to pursue cash over contraband, like drugs, when given the choice. 17 As one state representative advocating forfeiture reform put it, “If you are really after going after drug traffickers first and foremost, why don’t you seize their drugs instead of seizing their cash?” 18
A focus on cash also effectively criminalizes traveling with cash or keeping cash in one’s home. Traveling with cash or keeping cash at home—even in large amounts—is entirely legal, and people may have any number of legitimate reasons for doing so. For example, Eh Wah, mentioned in the introduction, was carrying concert proceeds and charitable donations raised by the Burmese Christian band whose tour he was managing. 19 And Terry Rolin’s life savings were seized from his daughter as she was on her way to deposit the money in a bank. 20 Others have had cash in the tens of thousands of dollars seized that they were saving to buy a music studio, 21 to purchase a vacation home in their home country, 22 and to build a free medical clinic for Nigerian women and children. 23 In none of these cases was anyone ever convicted of a crime.
Cash seizures are also more likely than other seizures to deny owners the financial wherewithal they need to fight back, leaving them with fewer—or no—resources with which to hire an attorney or pay any bonds required to challenge a forfeiture action. 24 This is likely to present a particular burden for disadvantaged populations, who may have fewer resources anyway. 25
Such populations may be at special risk of having their cash seized in the first place. 26 Lower-income, less-educated, younger, Black, Hispanic and working-age disabled households are all less likely to have access to bank accounts. 27 “Unbanked” or “underbanked” individuals may be more likely to carry cash or keep large amounts of cash in their homes—and to do so for innocent reasons—and to lose their money to forfeiture as a result.