In 2014, burglars, robbers, and muggers stole around $3.9 billion of goods and property from Americans nationwide. But that number pales compared to the $4.5 billion in property that law enforcement seized from Americans in the same year.
The process by which police were able to seize this record amount of goods is known as civil asset forfeiture. This process allows police to confiscate any of a suspect’s property or money if they believe it is related to criminal activity. Police are allowed to confiscate cash, possessions, vehicles, and even real estate, but are not required to provide proof of criminal activity, or even to press charges against the suspect. Once seized, retrieving one’s property from law enforcement is an extremely difficult and expensive process, even if the suspect was proven innocent in a court of law.
A recent report on civil asset forfeiture by the Institute for Justice found a “meteoric, exponential increase” in the amount of property seized by the federal government over the past decade. In 2001, the Justice Department and U.S. Treasury had less than $1 billion in combined asset forfeiture funds. By 2008, the combined funds were almost $1.5 billion. Six years later, that amount had nearly tripled to $4.5 billion in seized property.
In 34 states, police are allowed to keep between 80–100% of all assets seized under civil forfeiture laws. In nine other states, police can keep 45–75% of forfeited property, and in only seven states are police prevented from keeping any seized property. “The years 2008 to 2014 were some lean economic years,” Dick Carpenter, co-author of the report, said. “Forfeiture is an attractive way to keep revenue streams flowing when budgets are tight.”