When I was nine years old, I was one of the smallest students in my fourth grade class. With my small size, not to mention my smart mouth, I attracted more than my share of elementary school bullies.
One day, two much larger boys stole my lunch box. I couldn’t fight them off, but noticed a few moments later that they were fighting each other over a handful of homemade chocolate chip cookies my mother had packed in the lunchbox. While they were distracted, I retrieved my lunchbox with everything but the cookies intact.
This incident came to mind when I learned a few days ago that the Department of Justice (DOJ) had ended payouts from its “asset forfeiture fund” (AFF) to state and local police agencies. This fund consists primarily of assets confiscated under America’s notorious network of civil forfeiture laws. To lose your assets through civil forfeiture, you don’t need to be found guilty of a crime, or even accused of one. All police need to seize your assets is a hunch that something you own might have been acquired illegally, or that might be used for an illegal purpose.
Civil forfeiture has been around as long as the US has been in existence, but it was rarely used until 1984. That year, Congress enacted a law that introduced the concept of “adoption.” Under this process, when local or state police seize property, they may turn it over to the DOJ for processing under federal law. Once the forfeiture is finalized under federal law, the police agency that made the seizure receives up to 80% of the proceeds as a kickback. The DOJ calls this “equitable sharing.”
This process bypasses provisions in state law that would otherwise provide a legal barrier against loss of property without a criminal conviction. It also sidesteps state laws that say forfeited assets be used for specific purposes not related to law enforcement; education for example.
And from a law enforcement standpoint, it’s been uber-successful. According to the Institute for Justice:
- In 1986, the AFF took in $93.7 million in revenue from federal forfeitures. By 2014, annual deposits had reached $4.5 billion—a 4,667% increase.
- The forfeiture funds of the DOJ and Treasury Department together took in nearly $29 billion from 2001 to 2014, and combined annual revenue grew 1,000% over the period.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In 41 states, police and prosecutors can keep up to 100% of the assets they seize in civil forfeitures, without getting the feds involved. This is “policing for profit” in its purest form—and its use is exploding in these days of budget cutbacks. While there’s no nationwide tally of how much property state, local, and county police authorities seize each year, Washington, D.C. alone confiscated assets worth $254 million in 2012.
To understand how civil forfeiture works, consider the case of Chris Sourovelis, who has never been arrested, accused, or convicted of any crime. Yet in 2014, the City of Philadelphia confiscated his home.
Chris’s problems began when his son was caught selling $40 worth of illegal drugs outside the family home. Since his son had no arrest record, the court didn’t sentence him to prison—it sent him to rehab.
But the arrest put Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture machine in motion. Not long after the arrest, and with no notice, armed Philadelphia police barged into the family home, evicted Chris’s family, and confiscated the house. This was possible because civil forfeiture laws allow the government to forfeit property that “facilitate” a crime, no matter how tenuous the connection between the property and the crime.
Police alleged that since Chris’s son lived in the home, the property itself facilitated his drug offense. Even though police charged neither Chris nor his son with any crime, the city confiscated his home. He only got it back with the help of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-oriented organization that litigates on behalf of individuals and companies trampled by the government.
Since the DOJ has ended equitable sharing, a big chunk of the loot that cities and states seize under local or state forfeiture laws won’t be coming back to the seizing agency. They can still seize property for processing under federal law, but at least for the time being, they won’t get any of it back.
Here’s how it happened: As part of the last-minute budget deal cobbled together last month, Congress withdrew more than $1.2 billion from the AFF. It used the money to pay for spending increases elsewhere in the budget.
Keep in mind that until 1984, all assets forfeited by the feds were deposited with the US Treasury and not used to reward seizing agencies. But the sums of money raised through forfeiture are so vast that the DOJ’s decision to end equitable sharing set off an orgy of recriminations and outrage…not unlike bullies squaring off in the schoolyard over a handful of cookies.
The National Sherriff’s Association was one of the first organizations to weigh in against the new policy. It released a statement that it was:
“…shocked and disappointed by the [DOJ’s] decision to suspend the equitable sharing of Asset Forfeiture Program funds to state, local, and tribal law enforcement. This is yet another blow to those who work every day to prevent terrorism and crime in our communities… The protective capabilities of our nation are being downgraded at every level in never ending attacks on law enforcement.”
Right. Just like Chris Sourovelis was a criminal or a terrorist.
As I’ve pointed out before, the US is almost unique in the world with its civil forfeiture laws. Almost every other country equates the confiscation of property as punishment. And their laws require that a person who’s being punished should first be arrested, tried, and convicted of an actual crime.
But not the US. Here, civil forfeiture, in all its malodorous varieties, is an essential part of policing at every level of law enforcement—local, state, and federal.
In the end, the suspension of equitable sharing probably won’t make much of an impact. The DOJ is under immense pressure to resume it, although seizing agencies might not get back 80% of the loot they confiscate. And states can always amend their laws to make them more forfeiture friendly, so the cops can keep 100% of what they seize.
How can you prevent police “forfeiture squads” from confiscating your wealth? One of the strategies I learned as a nine-year-old was to stay away from schoolyard bullies. As an adult, I try to keep my property away from government bullies by keeping the largest portion of it offshore. With the civil forfeiture racket booming, I can’t think of a better reason for keeping it there.