When times are tough, people make less money. When people make less money, the government gets less tax revenue. When the government gets less tax revenue, police budgets are cut. And when police budgets are cut, cops sometimes bolster their bank accounts by taking more people’s money and stuff via civil asset forfeiture.
So finds a new study from the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm that researches and litigates in defense of private property and in pursuit of small, accountable government. The Washington Post reports:
The government does not measure the number of times per year that assets are seized. But one common measure of the practice is the amount of money in the asset forfeiture funds of the Department of Justice and the U.S. Treasury, the two agencies that typically perform forfeitures at the federal level. In 2008,there were less than $1.5 billion in the combined asset forfeiture funds of the Justice Department and the U.S. Treasury, according to the report. But by 2014, that number had tripled, to roughly $4.5 billion. …
One possible explanation for the recent rise is that “the years 2008 to 2014 were some lean economic years,” said report co-author Dick Carpenter in an interview. “Forfeiture is an attractive way to keep revenue streams flowing when budgets are tight.”
The hypothesis that tough economic times are a factor in how often police use civil asset forfeiture makes sense—because we’ve heard it straight from the horse’s mouth:
Law enforcement officers generally acknowledged this factor, according a Washington Post investigation last year: “All of our home towns are sitting on a tax-liberating gold mine,” Deputy Ron Hain of Kane County, Ill., wrote in a self-published book in 2011.
Other police officers have made similar comments. “There’s some limitations on it. Actually, there’s not really on the forfeiture stuff. We just usually base it on something that would be nice to have that we can’t get in the budget, for instance. We try not to use it for things that we need to depend on because we need to have those purchased,” one cop infamously remarked on camera.
“It’s kind of like pennies from heaven,” he added. “It gets you a toy or something that you need is the way that we typically look at it to be perfectly honest.”
Another video sees Harry S. Connelly Jr., the city attorney of Las Cruces, New Mexico, calling confiscated possessions “little goodies” and telling a story about police officers eager to seize a luxury car. The seminar where he was speaking actually offered officers tips on what to seize and what to ignore to make the most money for their departments.
The correlation between recession times and increased seizures undoubtedly exists because most state laws allow the bulk of forfeiture profits to go straight to police coffers, creating a profit motive:
At the state level there’s considerable variation in how much cash and property from seizures law enforcement officers get to keep. In some, like New Mexico and Missouri, 100 percent of seized assets go to state general funds rather than to law enforcement coffers. But in 25 states and at the federal level, police get to keep 100 percent of the assets they seize. “Allowing law enforcement agencies to reap financial benefits from forfeitures encourages the pursuit of property over the impartial administration of justice,” the report argues.