NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


January 27, 2010

Federal asset forfeiture law dates back to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act of 1970, a law aimed at seizing profits earned by organized crime.  In 1978 Congress broadened RICO to include drug violations.  But it was the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 that made forfeiture the lucrative, widely used law enforcement tool it is today, says Radley Balko, a senior editor at Reason magazine. 

For example: 

  • To seize property, the government had only to show probable cause to believe that it was connected to drug activity, or the same standard cops use to obtain search warrants.
  • The state was allowed to use hearsay evidence -- meaning a federal agent could testify that a drug informant told him a car or home was used in a drug transaction -- but property owners were barred from using hearsay, and couldn't even cross-examine some of the government's witnesses.
  • Informants, while being protected from scrutiny, were incentivized monetarily: According to the law, snitches could receive as much as one-quarter of the bounty, up to $50,000 per case. 

Over the past three decades, it has become routine in the United States for state, local and federal governments to seize the property of people who were never even charged with, much less convicted of, a crime, says Balko: 

  • According to a 1992 Cato Institute study examining the early results of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, total federal forfeiture revenues increased by 1,500 percent between 1985 and 1991.
  • The Justice Department's forfeiture fund (which doesn't include forfeitures from customs agents) jumped from $27 million in 1985 to $644 million in 1991; by 1996 it crossed the $1 billion line, and as of 2008 assets had increased to $3.1 billion.
  • According to the government's own data, less than 20 percent of federal seizures involved property whose owners were ever prosecuted. 

Police and prosecutors use forfeiture proceeds to fund not only general operations but junkets, parties and swank equipment.  A cottage industry has sprung up to offer law enforcement agencies instruction on how to take and keep property more efficiently, says Balko. 

Source: Radley Balko, "The Forfeiture Racket,", February 2010. 

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