Since police departments get to keep the assets they've forfeited, this has predictably turned into a cash grab.
The law isn't just used against known drugpins with millions of dollars in cash under mattresses. It's being used to take cars against people suspected of DUI and picking up prostitutes. A Philadelphia couple had their home seized because their teenage son is suspected of selling $40 worth of drugs from the home.
Not only does civil forfeiture mete out arbitrary punishments without due process, it also distorts incentives for police departments. Solving a difficult murder case pays nothing, while catching people looking for prostitutes can yield a fleet of cars in one evening.
Clearly a law that needs to go.
From the New York Times article:
The seminars offered police officers some useful tips on seizing property from suspected criminals. Don’t bother with jewelry (too hard to dispose of) and computers (“everybody’s got one already”), the experts counseled. Do go after flat screen TVs, cash and cars. Especially nice cars.
In one seminar, captured on video in September, Harry S. Connelly Jr., the city attorney of Las Cruces, N.M., called them “little goodies.” And then Mr. Connelly described how officers in his jurisdiction could not wait to seize one man’s “exotic vehicle” outside a local bar.
“A guy drives up in a 2008 Mercedes, brand new,” he explained. “Just so beautiful, I mean, the cops were undercover and they were just like ‘Ahhhh.’ And he gets out and he’s just reeking of alcohol. And it’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness, we can hardly wait.’ ”
Mr. Connelly was talking about a practice known as civil asset forfeiture, which allows the government, without ever securing a conviction or even filing a criminal charge, to seize property suspected of having ties to crime. The practice, expanded during the war on drugs in the 1980s, has become a staple of law enforcement agencies because it helps finance their work. It is difficult to tell how much has been seized by state and local law enforcement, but under a Justice Department program, the value of assets seized has ballooned to $4.3 billion in the 2012 fiscal year from $407 million in 2001. Much of that money is shared with local police forces.