The lies law enforcement tells about civil asset forfeiture are just that: lies. They may not be intentional lies in some cases. Many law enforcement officials may actually believe the bullshit they spill in defense of taking property from people without convicting them of crimes. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s bullshit.
If law enforcement was serious about crippling drug cartels, they wouldn’t be watching the roads leading out of their jurisdictions for drivers to pull over and shake down for cash. They’d be watching roads leading into the state to seize the drugs before they can be sold. But that’s not how it’s done. Drug busts are rare. Cash seizures — especially small ones — happen all the time.
When a Nashville television news team followed police officers working I-40 as part of a highway interdiction task force not unlike South Carolina’s Rolling Thunder, it found officers did not work the east- and westbound lanes equally. Rather, they seemed to prefer the westbound side even though they were more likely to find drugs on the eastbound side, as smugglers transported them to Nashville and other cities to the east. A possible explanation for this observation is that officers knew they were more likely to find drug money on the westbound side, as smugglers transported it back to Mexico or the West Coast. Records confirmed officers made 10 times as many stops on the westbound side as they did on the eastbound.
You’ll notice law enforcement never brings stats to the discussion. All officials bring are talking points. Most states don’t require any level of reporting on seizures and the law enforcement spending that flows from these. The opacity has allowed a law enforcement tool to become an unaudited revenue stream, providing agencies with all the incentive they need to turn traffic stops into lucrative fishing expeditions.
Fortunately, those opposed to the abusive practice will have even more facts to work with, thanks to a new study [PDF] by Dr. Brian D. Kelly of the Institute for Justice. Millions of dollars flow into law enforcement agencies every year from forfeiture, but this has yet to provide the public with any return on the forced investment.
More equitable sharing funds do not translate into more crimes solved. This suggests that despite claims forfeiture turns criminals’ cash into more resources for law enforcement, the additional revenue is not improving overall police effectiveness in crime fighting.
More equitable sharing funds also do not mean less drug use, even though proponents argue forfeiture helps rid the streets of drugs by financially crippling drug dealers and cartels.
When local economies suffer, equitable sharing activity increases, suggesting police make greater use of forfeiture when local budgets are tight. A 1 percentage point increase in local unemployment—a standard proxy for fiscal stress—is associated with a statistically significant 9 percentage point increase in equitable sharing seizures.
That’s two popular arguments directly disproven. The first one — that forfeiture allows agencies to purchase the tech and tools they need to fight crime successfully — is disproven by the lack of results. Sure, agencies are loading up on equipment and spy gear, but clearance rates on criminal investigations aren’t tracking with the increased cash flow. Using law enforcement data, the IJ can’t find any link between asset forfeiture and law enforcement efficiency.
Results suggest forfeiture does not help police solve more crime. The results of these analyses were statistically insignificant at conventional levels, suggesting additional forfeiture revenue does not translate into more crimes solved. But even if the results were significant, the relationship between forfeiture and crime clearance would be vanishingly small. For example, the LEMAS [Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics] data for municipal police suggest a $1,000 increase in equitable sharing funds per officer would mean solving just 2.4 more crimes per 1,000 reported offenses. So if an agency’s clearance rate were, say, 270 per 1,000 offenses, receiving $1,000 more in equitable sharing funds per officer would mean increasing the clearance rate to just 272.4. A $1,000 increase in funds per officer would be substantial—total equitable sharing averages less than half of this—yet such a windfall would make only a minor difference. Moreover, such tiny improvements in clearance rates would diminish as forfeiture revenue increases; for example, the first $500 per officer in a given year would have a greater impact than the second $500 per officer. These results suggest claims about forfeiture’s crime-fighting importance are, at best, overstated.
The second talking point — that forfeiture cripples drug dealers and cartels — also has no factual basis. Again, the numbers contradict the claims. Using the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) carried out by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the IJ found no correlation between asset forfeiture and reductions in drug use, suggesting drugs are still just as easy to obtain.
From 2002 through 2014, the survey underwent no major relevant changes, making it possible to directly compare results over time. This feature allowed me to explore whether increases in equitable sharing proceeds received by agencies within a particular NSDUH region were associated with reductions in drug use in those same regions. I controlled for police agency staffing, which could affect police effectiveness, as well as for demographic and economic factors sometimes associated with drug use: the proportion of the population age 15–24, the minority proportion of the population and the unemployment rate. The four NSDUH drug use measures I used were (1) use of any illicit drug in the previous year, (2) marijuana use in the previous year, (3) nonmedical use of prescription pain relievers in the previous year and (4) cocaine use in the previous year.
For none of these illicit drug use measures did I find increases in equitable sharing proceeds led to subsequent reductions in use. In short, to the extent forfeiture advocates hope increasing enforcement through forfeiture will reduce drug use, this does not appear to be happening.
What the report did find is something unexpected: the more financially-stressed an area is, the more likely it is law enforcement will make it worse. Forfeitures increase as unemployment increases, suggesting financially-strapped agencies are stepping up forfeiture efforts to make up for budget shortfalls.
In every case, I found that higher unemployment predicted more equitable sharing activity. For equitable sharing overall as well as for both joint operations and adoptions, the link between unemployment and both value of assets forfeited and number of assets seized was statistically significant. With respect to equitable sharing overall, a 1 percentage point increase in unemployment was associated with an 8.5 percentage point increase in the value of forfeited assets and a 9.5 percentage point increase in the number of assets seized…
The study confirms what’s always been suspected: asset forfeiture directly enriches law enforcement agencies but provides zero benefit to the communities the agencies serve. That’s the very definition of abuse. Cops are using citizens as ATMs while drug cartels thrive. The data clearly shows the only negative impact of serious asset forfeiture reforms will be an increase in complaints from law enforcement officials.