Gathering Nationwide Data to Study Forfeiture

This volume’s extensive compilation of state and federal forfeiture data is thanks to improved reporting laws and practices—spurred in large part by IJ’s efforts—as well as broader and more granular data collection enabled by our substantial institutional experience with forfeiture reporting. We gained this experience, on which we continue to build, from collecting data for the second edition of Policing for Profit and from creating and maintaining our Forfeiture Transparency & Accountability report cards (see “Despite Progress, Forfeiture Transparency and Accountability Remain Limited.”). 1

Transparency in forfeiture programs and spending from forfeiture funds is important for several reasons. First, transparency generally allows legislators and the public to hold law enforcement agencies to account for their forfeiture activity and spending, promoting responsible management of public funds and likely deterring some bad behavior. Second, it can help legislators and the public gauge whether forfeiture is effective policy. And third, in shedding light on abuse as well as on forfeiture’s efficacy, or lack thereof, transparency can drive momentum for substantive reform.

However, despite improvements over the past five years, most states’ forfeiture tracking and reporting falls far short of the ideal. Among other deficiencies, most states still do not require that forfeiture reports or other records be published online, forcing interested parties to file public records requests. Indeed, much of the data IJ obtained for this report came from such requests—not easily accessible compilations of data. Our research team worked extensively to manage the hundreds of public records requests IJ filed in pursuit of forfeiture data since the previous edition of this report,  a task far beyond the time or abilities of ordinary citizens, public officials charged with law enforcement oversight and, increasingly, the media. We even had to sue two federal agencies for access to their forfeiture data. 2

It is not uncommon for records requests to be met with resistance. For example, when Carter Walker, a reporter with the Pennsylvania news outlet LancasterOnline, requested forfeiture records from the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office, the then-DA relied on irrelevant exemptions from the state’s Right-to-Know Law to withhold many of the records requested. 3 So Carter and LNP, LancasterOnline’s parent company, teamed up with IJ to sue to make Lancaster County and neighboring Berks County forfeiture records available to the public. 4

This case underscores why transparency is so important. Though the case is still ongoing, Carter’s reporting fueled public concern and prompted the new DA to audit the office’s forfeiture account. The audit found $150,000 missing from the account, neatly demonstrating how mismanagement and illegal activity can go undetected without transparency. 5

Also illustrating the importance of transparency are many of the analyses in this report. For example, thanks to some states’ very detailed data describing individual forfeited properties, this report is able to show just how small most currency forfeitures are. These analyses suggest that, all too often, forfeiture is targeting not major criminal enterprises but rather ordinary people (see “Big-Time Criminals or Small-Time Forfeitures?”). Such findings paint an alarming picture and call into question proponents’ claims that forfeiture is a crucial crime-fighting tool (see “Evidence Suggests Forfeiture Doesn’t Work”).

In all, we gathered records from the forfeiture programs of 45 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. departments of Justice and the Treasury. 6 For 28 states, we obtained revenue data describing individual forfeited properties—a total of 355,000 properties for the 24 states with usable data. For another 11 states, we obtained revenue data for individual agencies or prosecutors’ offices. We also collected data on spending from forfeiture funds for 17 states, the largest collection of such data.

We organized all these data into a single database for a total of over 17 million data points across 45 states. The breadth and detail of these data allow us to conduct new nationwide analyses, giving us a clearer picture of forfeiture across the United States than previously possible. Readers can browse visualizations of the size and scope of forfeiture and download our data online. Our State Profiles provide key data by state.