The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Time to end ‘policing for profit’

Law enforcement officials have plenty of words to categorize property heists, including robbery, theft, burglary, embezzlement and larceny. Perhaps it’s time to add another term to the lexicon: civil forfeiture. 

Many Americans may not realize that civil forfeiture laws—which proliferated in the 1980s as the drug war intensified—allow the government to take homes, cash, jewelry, cars and other valuables from people who are never convicted of or even formally charged with wrongdoing.  

{mosads}Now a newly updated report documents the long reach of federal and state civil forfeiture laws and their potential for abuse. According to Policing for Profit, issued by the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm, in 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Assets Forfeiture Fund took in $4.5 billion—up from just $93.7 million in 1986.  The Justice and Treasury departments combined took in $29 billion through forfeitures from 2001 to 2014, with annual revenues growing by 1,000 percent over that period. 

The growth is no less rampant at the state level. In the 14 states for which data was consistently available, forfeiture revenues more than doubled from 2002 to 2013. Amidst this rise, agencies have even lavished millions in forfeiture spending on salaries and overtime. Despite a recent spate of modest reforms in some capitols, civil forfeiture laws in 35 states earn a grade of D+ or worse in the latest edition of Policing for Profit, meaning innocent property owners across the country remain at risk. 

Once property is seized, owners must go to court and navigate a complex legal maze to try to win it back, a costly and time-consuming burden beyond the means of many innocent victims. Because it is a civil proceeding, constitutional protections such as a right to counsel do not apply. And because the property itself is considered somehow “guilty” of a crime—not its owner—the owner need never be charged with criminal activity. 

Iowa restaurant owner Carole Hinders knows this all too well. In 2013, the IRS looted her bank account of more than $32,000 after concluding the regular deposits she made for her cash-only business were intended to evade federal reporting requirements designed to catch drug dealers and other criminals. Hinders had owned the business for 40 years and the agency never alleged the money was dirty or that she had evaded her tax obligations. 

Exacerbating the injustice, most civil forfeiture statutes allow law enforcement agencies to keep a portion—or even all—of the proceeds generated by the cash and property they confiscate that is subsequently forfeited. That creates an obvious temptation for police and prosecutors to ramp up seizure activity. One (now former) New Mexico city attorney admitted in a speech last year that civil forfeiture is a “gold mine” and that “We could be czars.” 

Many law enforcement officials defend civil forfeiture as a useful crime-fighting tool and have lobbied aggressively to successfully kill proposed reforms. But arguing that Americans should accept the erosion of constitutional safeguards in the name of expediency is to reject the very principles embodied in the Bill of Rights. 

In fact, well-crafted forfeiture reform can preserve the rights of innocent Americans while still allowing law enforcement officials to pursue the ill-gotten gains of convicted criminals. Most recently, New Mexico and the District of Columbia enacted sweeping overhauls of their forfeiture laws, redirecting any and all forfeiture proceeds to the general fund, ensuring that police agencies don’t profit from seizure activity. Both jurisdictions also enacted procedural requirements that respect constitutional protections for due process and property rights, and mandate transparency as it applies to a jurisdiction’s forfeiture activity and spending. New Mexico and the District of Columbia now earn some of the highest marks from IJ’s report, setting powerful examples for others to follow. 

In Congress, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) have introduced the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act to substantially overhaul federal forfeiture laws. Despite wide bipartisan support (it has over 80 cosponsors in the House), neither chamber’s Judiciary Committee has taken up the bill. 

Nobody should lose their property without first being convicted of a crime. After all, it’s of little solace to Carole Hinders and the many others like her when the thieves strike using badges and law degrees rather than lock picks and gunnysacks.

Kerr is a communications fellow with the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm in Arlington, Va.

Tags Rand Paul

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

More Judicial News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video