The federal government and most states use civil forfeiture to take cash, cars and more without charging owners with a crime. The proceeds often flow into accounts controlled by law enforcement, sometimes including the same police and prosecutors who seized and forfeited the property. Yet few Americans realize this legal process exists until they find themselves fighting for their own property. Now a first-of-its-kind study from the Institute for Justice (IJ) takes a detailed look at the victims of a law enforcement practice often called “policing for profit.”
The new study, “Frustrating, Corrupt, Unfair: Civil Forfeiture in the Words of Its Victims,” surveys victims of Philadelphia’s forfeiture program, which raked in tens of millions for Philadelphia police and prosecutors. Thanks to a class action lawsuit IJ brought, the program was dismantled in 2018, and a $3 million compensation fund was created for more than 30,000 victims. The new study, co-authored by IJ researcher Jennifer McDonald and IJ Senior Director of Strategic Research Dick Carpenter, surveyed those victims to learn about their first-hand experiences with forfeiture.
“What is often lost in the data about civil forfeiture are the human faces behind the numbers,” said McDonald, the study’s lead author. “For the first time ever, we were able to get a broad overview of the life circumstances of people fighting civil forfeiture and how they feel about their predicament. The survey focuses on victims of Philadelphia’s notoriously abusive program, but the challenges they faced are common to forfeiture programs across the country.”
IJ surveyed more than 30,000 victims who had property seized under Philadelphia’s forfeiture program between 2012 and 2018, gathering data from 407 respondents. The major findings are:
Civil forfeiture preys on disadvantaged communities. Two-thirds of respondents were Black, 63% earned less than $50,000 annually, and 18% were unemployed. And forfeitures were clustered in predominantly minority and low-income areas.
Law enforcement uses civil forfeiture to shake down innocent people and minor offenders rather than fight serious crime. Only about 1 in 4 of Philadelphia respondents was found or pleaded guilty to wrongdoing, but 69% saw their property forfeited forever.
Civil forfeiture rarely targets big-time drug criminals, as proponents claim. Respondents reported that half of seizures were worth less than $600, and police seized as little as $25 in cash, a cologne gift set worth $20 and crutches.
Civil forfeiture is extremely hard to fight, especially for the disadvantaged. In Philadelphia, the working poor frequently gave up, often because they could not show up for the many required court appearances. People with less education were also far less likely to successfully navigate the convoluted process required to win their property back.
Though IJ achieved a historic settlement that ended the worst abuses of Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture system, the Pennsylvania laws that enabled the system have not been substantively reformed. In fact, they earned a “D-” in “Policing for Profit,” IJ’s landmark civil forfeiture study, now in its third edition, 33 other states and the federal government also received a “D+” or lower. These low grades indicate most states provide extremely poor protections for property owners caught up in forfeiture and give law enforcement a large incentive to seize and forfeit property. Only three states have eliminated both civil forfeiture and the incentive it creates to police for profit.
“Civil forfeiture is a nationwide problem. What was happening in Philadelphia happens every day in people’s homes, on our highways and in our airports,” said Lee McGrath, IJ’s senior legislative counsel. “Legislators should recognize that it is our most vulnerable citizens who are suffering the most under this unjust system that divides communities and law enforcement. It is time for legislators to end civil forfeiture, replace it with criminal forfeiture and direct forfeiture proceeds to neutral accounts.”
Forfeiture proponents argue that forfeiture fights crime, but past IJ research showed that more forfeiture proceeds do not help police solve more crimes—and they may, perversely, make police less effective at solving violent crimes. Other IJ research has found that New Mexico’s reform eliminating civil forfeiture and the profit incentive had no effect on crime rates.
IJ is the leading defender of civil forfeiture victims, representing people in court, highlighting the many problems with civil forfeiture through strategic research and advocating for legislative reform. In Los Angeles, IJ brought a class action lawsuit against the FBI over its raid of security deposit boxes. IJ also brought a class action lawsuit against the Drug Enforcement Administration and Transportation Security Administration over searches and seizures at airports. And most recently, IJ launched a class action lawsuit against Harris County’s (Houston) civil forfeiture practices. Past IJ research showed that state and federal forfeiture programs do not effectively fight crime but are used to raise revenue when local economies suffer. Other IJ research found Customs and Border Protection and other Department of Homeland Security agencies use civil forfeiture to take and keep currency from travelers whose only crime is often ignorance of paperwork requirements. Finally, thanks in part to IJ’s advocacy, earlier this year, Maine ended civil forfeiture, leaving only the state’s criminal forfeiture process.