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Controversial Property Seizures by Police Are Soaring

Dated-November 2015

Civil asset forfeiture may spike during lean times

The controversial policing practice in which law enforcement seize private property regardless of whether or not its owner is charged with a crime has skyrocketed in the last decade, according to a new report.

Civil forfeiture is the seizure of private property by law enforcement agencies that officials suspect of being involved in criminal activity, regardless of whether or not its owner is ever convicted of or even charged with a crime. There are few hard numbers on how many forfeitures are conducted nationwide, but one metric is the total dollar value of what’s seized by the Justice Department and U.S. Treasury every year. (The federal agencies are often involved in forfeitures at both the state and federal level.)

According to the report “Policing for Profit” from the civil liberties law firm the Institute for Justice, assets seized by DOJ and Treasury totaled less than $1 billion every year from 2001 to 2006. By 2014, however, seized assets totaled nearly $4.5 billion, a 485 percent increase from 2001. The second edition of the report was released Tuesday, with updated numbers from the first edition in 2010.

Critics of civil asset forfeiture say that regulations allowing law enforcement agencies to keep a cut of the assets they seize create an incentive for police to plunder citizens regardless of guilt or innocence. “The years 2008 to 2014 were some lean economic years,” report co-author Dick Carpenter told The Washington Post. “Forfeiture is an attractive way to keep revenue streams flowing when budgets are tight.”

The report also highlights cases of alleged abuse in which innocent citizens have their property seized by police and are then forced to “navigate a confusing, complex and often expensive legal process to try to win it back.”