Is Civil Asset Forfeiture really a useful tool in fighting crime? Two new Inspector General reports on the DEA and the IRS challenge that assumption.
If someone decided they wanted your property and showed up with guns to take it, you’d call that a crime. But if that someone happened to be the federal government, and they took your stuff without charging you with a crime, they’d call it ‘civil asset forfeiture’, and you would have a difficult time ever getting your stuff back. Supporters of civil asset forfeiture champion the practice as a tool that law enforcement can use to thwart criminal enterprises. But frequently there is never a criminal case made in relation to asset seizures, putting the lie to the claim that seizures are indispensable in fighting criminals. Much of the time, these agencies aren’t even charging or prosecuting their targets. They assume guilt, confiscate assets, and leave it up to the person whose assets they’ve seized to try to get it back.
Inspector General reports scrutinizing the activities of the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Internal Revenue Service were recently released, each pointing to serious problems with the way these federal agencies confiscate assets from citizens without charging them with any crimes.
The DEA report reached some incredible findings, among them:
- The DEA seized over $4 billion in cash alone since 2007.
- Only 4% of the amount the DEA seized in the reporting period was returned to the owner.
- Of 100 cases reviewed in which there were no narcotics seized or warrants served, the IG found that only 44 of them were tied to or furthered a criminal investigation.
- Cases in which the DEA seized over $100k account for 70% of cash seized, but the agency handled 9 times more cases where the value of the assets seized was under $100k.
The IRS report was equally shocking, including these findings:
- In 91% of cases examined for ‘structuring deposits’, no evidence was found that the funds came from illegal sources or involved criminal activity.
- Only 21 of the 252 cases of legal-source cash established a case for tax violations.
- Only 3% of documents regarding forfeiture that were reviewed showed evidence of an interview with the subject BEFORE the seizure took place.
While these changes point to positive improvements, both reports contain further recommendations addressing consistency, oversight, and civil liberties. If the suggestions are taken seriously and implemented by the new administration, it might be the beginning of serious reform in civil asset forfeiture. And it will be a long overdue and highly welcome change.
Find out more about civil asset forfeiture, and check whether reform legislation is being filed in your state.