Study Shows Asset Forfeiture Doesn't Fight Crime Or Reduce Drug Use

from the drug-war-what-is-it-good-for dept

The lies law enforcement tells about civil asset forfeiture are just that: lies. They may not be intentional lies in some cases. Many law enforcement officials may actually believe the bullshit they spill in defense of taking property from people without convicting them of crimes. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s bullshit.

If law enforcement was serious about crippling drug cartels, they wouldn’t be watching the roads leading out of their jurisdictions for drivers to pull over and shake down for cash. They’d be watching roads leading into the state to seize the drugs before they can be sold. But that’s not how it’s done. Drug busts are rare. Cash seizures — especially small ones — happen all the time.

When a Nashville television news team followed police officers working I-40 as part of a highway interdiction task force not unlike South Carolina’s Rolling Thunder, it found officers did not work the east- and westbound lanes equally. Rather, they seemed to prefer the westbound side even though they were more likely to find drugs on the eastbound side, as smugglers transported them to Nashville and other cities to the east. A possible explanation for this observation is that officers knew they were more likely to find drug money on the westbound side, as smugglers transported it back to Mexico or the West Coast. Records confirmed officers made 10 times as many stops on the westbound side as they did on the eastbound.

You’ll notice law enforcement never brings stats to the discussion. All officials bring are talking points. Most states don’t require any level of reporting on seizures and the law enforcement spending that flows from these. The opacity has allowed a law enforcement tool to become an unaudited revenue stream, providing agencies with all the incentive they need to turn traffic stops into lucrative fishing expeditions.

Fortunately, those opposed to the abusive practice will have even more facts to work with, thanks to a new study [PDF] by Dr. Brian D. Kelly of the Institute for Justice. Millions of dollars flow into law enforcement agencies every year from forfeiture, but this has yet to provide the public with any return on the forced investment.

More equitable sharing funds do not translate into more crimes solved. This suggests that despite claims forfeiture turns criminals’ cash into more resources for law enforcement, the additional revenue is not improving overall police effectiveness in crime fighting.

More equitable sharing funds also do not mean less drug use, even though proponents argue forfeiture helps rid the streets of drugs by financially crippling drug dealers and cartels.

When local economies suffer, equitable sharing activity increases, suggesting police make greater use of forfeiture when local budgets are tight. A 1 percentage point increase in local unemployment—a standard proxy for fiscal stress—is associated with a statistically significant 9 percentage point increase in equitable sharing seizures.

That’s two popular arguments directly disproven. The first one — that forfeiture allows agencies to purchase the tech and tools they need to fight crime successfully — is disproven by the lack of results. Sure, agencies are loading up on equipment and spy gear, but clearance rates on criminal investigations aren’t tracking with the increased cash flow. Using law enforcement data, the IJ can’t find any link between asset forfeiture and law enforcement efficiency.

Results suggest forfeiture does not help police solve more crime. The results of these analyses were statistically insignificant at conventional levels, suggesting additional forfeiture revenue does not translate into more crimes solved. But even if the results were significant, the relationship between forfeiture and crime clearance would be vanishingly small. For example, the LEMAS [Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics] data for municipal police suggest a $1,000 increase in equitable sharing funds per officer would mean solving just 2.4 more crimes per 1,000 reported offenses. So if an agency’s clearance rate were, say, 270 per 1,000 offenses, receiving $1,000 more in equitable sharing funds per officer would mean increasing the clearance rate to just 272.4. A $1,000 increase in funds per officer would be substantial—total equitable sharing averages less than half of this—yet such a windfall would make only a minor difference. Moreover, such tiny improvements in clearance rates would diminish as forfeiture revenue increases; for example, the first $500 per officer in a given year would have a greater impact than the second $500 per officer. These results suggest claims about forfeiture’s crime-fighting importance are, at best, overstated.

The second talking point — that forfeiture cripples drug dealers and cartels — also has no factual basis. Again, the numbers contradict the claims. Using the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) carried out by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the IJ found no correlation between asset forfeiture and reductions in drug use, suggesting drugs are still just as easy to obtain.

From 2002 through 2014, the survey underwent no major relevant changes, making it possible to directly compare results over time. This feature allowed me to explore whether increases in equitable sharing proceeds received by agencies within a particular NSDUH region were associated with reductions in drug use in those same regions. I controlled for police agency staffing, which could affect police effectiveness, as well as for demographic and economic factors sometimes associated with drug use: the proportion of the population age 15–24, the minority proportion of the population and the unemployment rate. The four NSDUH drug use measures I used were (1) use of any illicit drug in the previous year, (2) marijuana use in the previous year, (3) nonmedical use of prescription pain relievers in the previous year and (4) cocaine use in the previous year.

For none of these illicit drug use measures did I find increases in equitable sharing proceeds led to subsequent reductions in use. In short, to the extent forfeiture advocates hope increasing enforcement through forfeiture will reduce drug use, this does not appear to be happening.

What the report did find is something unexpected: the more financially-stressed an area is, the more likely it is law enforcement will make it worse. Forfeitures increase as unemployment increases, suggesting financially-strapped agencies are stepping up forfeiture efforts to make up for budget shortfalls.

In every case, I found that higher unemployment predicted more equitable sharing activity. For equitable sharing overall as well as for both joint operations and adoptions, the link between unemployment and both value of assets forfeited and number of assets seized was statistically significant. With respect to equitable sharing overall, a 1 percentage point increase in unemployment was associated with an 8.5 percentage point increase in the value of forfeited assets and a 9.5 percentage point increase in the number of assets seized…

The study confirms what’s always been suspected: asset forfeiture directly enriches law enforcement agencies but provides zero benefit to the communities the agencies serve. That’s the very definition of abuse. Cops are using citizens as ATMs while drug cartels thrive. The data clearly shows the only negative impact of serious asset forfeiture reforms will be an increase in complaints from law enforcement officials.

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Comments on “Study Shows Asset Forfeiture Doesn't Fight Crime Or Reduce Drug Use”

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45 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Apparently law enforcement is concentrating their efforts on the low level offenders and looking the other way when it is a high level offender. This approach will not solve the problem and it is evident that solving the problem is not their intent. Why fix a problem when that problem puts money in your pocket, to hell with morals and ethics. This attitude seems to be very prevalent.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Well, they do want the cash! If they busted them with drugs, what are they going to do with the drugs? Sure they can under-report it and sell some of it, but really, Police departments aren’t selling the drugs, they’re disposing of the drugs. You’re not making any money doing that. But if you wait, let the dealers sell the drugs and come back with the money, well it’s in CASH that the police want. Of course, anyone and everyone with cash on them as far as they care are drug dealers.

Just taking money from people with no charges, let alone found guilty in the court of law is the biggest problem with this SCAM. It should NEVER be allowed. It is highway robbery by the police!!! This has to end.

In fact, the Drug War needs to end. It’s caused more harm than anything else. Many innocent people have been murdered by the police from mistakes to thrown in jail having done nothing wrong. There’s whole prison industry. We lock upo more people in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world.

While I’m against Abortion because that other life is NOT your own. In general, what you do to your own Body, I could care less. If you want to be a druggy, so be it. Look at the mess the ban on Alcohol caused. All the crime, while the politicians, and mayors and police, etc are all in on it drinking away. I can buy all the Alcohol I want, be a huge drunk, yet I rarely drink. Back in High school long ago, I smoked a little weed once in a while. I haven’t had any in a very long time. It’s called self-control.

What YOU drink or what drugs YOU take, I could care less so long as it doesn’t affect ME or anyone else. What you do in your own home to yourself, who cares.

Agammamon says:

They may not be intentional lies in some cases. Many law enforcement officials may actually believe the bullshit they spill in defense of taking property from people without convicting them of crimes. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s bullshit.

If law enforcement was serious about crippling drug cartels, they wouldn’t be watching the roads leading out of their jurisdictions for drivers to pull over and shake down for cash.

That’s how you know that they’re intentional lies in all cases. Even the cops who initially believed that CAF is a vital tool in preventing the spread of drug use couldn’t continue to believe it after a single day of CAF operations.

Terry Yocky the saucy Aussie jockey says:

What's wrong with interdicting money?

Rather, they seemed to prefer the westbound side even though they were more likely to find drugs on the eastbound side, as smugglers transported them to Nashville and other cities to the east. A possible explanation for this observation is that officers knew they were more likely to find drug money on the westbound side, as smugglers transported it back to Mexico or the West Coast. Records confirmed officers made 10 times as many stops on the westbound side as they did on the eastbound.

Fine! Looks an effective strategy, likely best use of limited personnel / time. Take the money out is right approach to nearly every problem, especially GOOGLE / Facebook.

Agammamon says:

Re: What's wrong with interdicting money?

Except that a) its not having any noticeable effect on the flow of drugs into the country and b) doesn’t even have a chance to ‘reduce harm’ by keeping some small amount of drugs off the street.

If they were serious about the dangers of drug use – rather than the dangers posed by drug dealers in a prohibitory regime – then they’d be concentrating on the in-bound lanes to stop drugs from getting into people’s hands. This would have the follow-on effect of reducing the number (and danger from) of street-level dealers.

Daydream says:

Re: Re: Re:2 What's wrong with interdicting money?

We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

John Ehrlichman, former Nixon official. According to him, the war on drugs was deliberately intended to discredit the anti-war movement and black people, by associating them with illegal drug use.

So, yes, if you believe him, then the war on drugs is definitely based upon racism, with a side helping of suppressing dissidents.

Terry Yocky the saucy Aussie jockey says:

Re: Re: What's wrong with interdicting money?

Except that a) its not having any noticeable effect on the flow of drugs into the country and b) doesn’t even have a chance to ‘reduce harm’ by keeping some small amount of drugs off the street.

You pre-load your view with that’s the purpose.

I don’t pre-load. When I look for a good it’s FINE with me if drug dealers don’t get the money.

I DO believe that drug addicts should be suppressed because general harm, and you clearly think self-abuse is victimless and so on.

Then, fact is, the current interdiction doesn’t bother ME.

Gary (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: What's wrong with interdicting money?

Then, fact is, the current interdiction doesn’t bother ME.

Because you have no money, live in your parents basement, and don’t own a car. Therefore you can’t have your stuff confiscated. But it’s good to know that you believe the Federal Government can overrule the constitutional protection against search and seizure and it doesn’t bother you. You like the Feds, hate the constitution. Check!

Agammamon says:

Re: Re: Re: What's wrong with interdicting money?

You also preload your view with the idea that its also fine if innocent people have their money and property stolen – as long as the ‘drug dealers don’t get their money’.

Except the drug dealers are still getting their money. And the little bit that is stolen from them is used to finance even greater oppression directed at innocent people.

Separate question – what is your problem with drug dealing in the first place? You don’t seem anywhere near as antipathic towards alcohol or tobacco vendors.

stderric (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: What's wrong with interdicting money?

When I look for a good it’s FINE with me if drug dealers don’t get the money.

If the police stop the outbound payment to suppliers for a delivered product, the local dealers have nonetheless received their supply and are still able to make money off of it. If the police stop the inbound product, however, local dealers have no reason to pay the suppliers and nothing to sell and profit from.

The cops could make sure that twice the number of drug dealers "don’t get the money" just by moving their focus across the median to the other side of the interstate… but they choose not to. Even if you support the stupid drug war and think the cops are all well-intentioned, it’s ridiculous to approve of them doing such a half-assed job at it.

Terry Yocky the saucy Aussie jockey says:

Re: What's wrong with interdicting money?

By the way, for anyone new: other times, Techdirt sticks up for drug dealers, claiming they should be let loose on any and every technicality. That underlies the complain here: they’re afraid won’t be able to get drugs.

Anyhoo, you then lose focus and blather about what isn’t an apparent goal of legislation or police: of putting the money to use in communities. I don’t want gov’t to ever rely on promoting drugs — as liberals begin to do — so if the police "squander" the money, that’s optimum!

This is another instance of your weird biases scrambling and reversing your logical stance.

How so? — Go back to the block quote above: Techdirt is not actually against drugs, so… that the police let the drugs through and only seize money before it gets back to higher ups should please you! It’s highway PIRACY!


‘m’a’s’n’i’c’k’s ‘h’a’t’e ‘r’u’l’e’s ‘e’s’p ‘h’o’r’i’z’o’n’t’a’l’s

5 attempts to get that one in! New session didsn’t work, but after breaking up and Resend, did without changes to the actual text so I ask again, WHAT good are the mighty Techdirt "filters"? It’s just random.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: What's wrong with interdicting money?

5 attempts to get that one in! New session didsn’t work, but after breaking up and Resend, did without changes to the actual text so I ask again, WHAT good are the mighty Techdirt "filters"? It’s just random.

In my world, I would call it an ID 10 T issue, exclusively on the user end.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: What's wrong with interdicting money?

claiming they should be let loose on any and every technicality

If those doing the arresting did their jobs right instead of being fuck ups, then "technicalities" wouldn’t happen. But that’s what happens when you have cops who don’t know fuck all about the law, despite being "law enforcement."

5 attempts to get that one in!

Potential causes (listed in order of probability):

  • You’re incompetent when it comes to posting
  • Your ISP sucks (hint: get off dial-up; AOL isn’t really a thing anymore)
  • Your ISP’s DPI hates your horizontal lines too
Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Techdirt is not actually against drugs

[citation needed]

that the police let the drugs through and only seize money before it gets back to higher ups should please you!

The following would please me:

  • the legalization and regulation of all drugs
  • localized distribution of tax monies gained from the sale of regulated drugs
  • the immediate release/pardon of any non-violent drug offender who was arrested/incarcerated for possession of drugs under a certain weight, with their records of such offenses expunged
  • an end to asset forfeiture programs

The following would not:

  • the police choosing to overlook the trafficking of illegal drugs so they can steal cash from innocent people and criminals alike
TheLizard (profile) says:

Police Bribes

Sounds like asset forfeiture is working exactly as designed. Not the way it was sold, but the way it was designed. Just look at the history.

Before this was implemented, it was becoming apparent, especially to the police on the ground, that the "war on drugs" was not just a failure, but that it actually increased crime and violence. As it became untenable, the police started to push back. They did NOT want to be involved in this failed policy any more.

By the late 1980’s, asset forfeiture was in place, and police departments started getting training on how they could simply and easily grab money and cars and homes, and use it however they like. It was a huge bribe to law enforcement to get them back on board with the Drug War.

And it worked. Sure, you still hear some law enforcement criticizing drug laws, but by and large most go along with it, and being able to seize property without dealing with pesky trials and prosecutors and all that has a LOT to do with why.

In many cases, it had the opposite effect on drug kingpins, which is what the law was sold to address. These wealthy Scarface types supposedly have plenty of money and competent lawyers, making them not only harder to convict, but also with the resources to fight asset forfeiture in civil courts. So they are often given a deal: Drop your claim to the property we seized, and we will drop the criminal charges. How’s THAT for "unintended consequences?"

Anonymous Coward says:

While I appreciate being updated on studies like this, and it’s tangentially related to tech (by being related to tech articles on civil asset forfeiture TD has done in the past) I would have appreciated more of a tech angle on this article. It doesn’t really speak to the tech used in the study, the tech abused by police, or potential tech that could be used to curb the identified problems here — but seems more of a politico or ACLU piece.

Anyone have any details on the tech involved?

bobob says:

Of course it doesn’t. What asset forfeiture does do is to prevent the dea, police and other law enforcement from having to justify their programs, personnel and purchases to taxpayers who would have to cough up the cash otherwise. In fact, it’s even better from a "law enforcement" perspective if asset forfeiture doesn’t solve any real problem, because then the asset forfeiture would go away along with the "problem" that justified it. On the other hand, not solving the problem will, of course, require more forfeitures.

As long as cops act like the criminals they purport to pursue, they will be seen by the the public as an us against them thing, because that is what they’ve made it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Crime breeds more crime, not less

In the 1970s, in response to Serpico’s case, the NYPD stopped enforcing vice laws beyond token arrests of the most obvious violators. If you did it behind even a single closed door, you weren’t bothered, and even then many street operators weren’t. The theory was that it would reduce police corruption.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re: Crime breeds more crime, not less

And? I am being serious. That kind of story, issued in response to another post, seems to be the set up to trying to make a point. But without a conconclusion, that NYPD changed policies 40-50 years ago seems to instead invite the reader to come to a conclusion. I have to assume your goal is to then pwn any response that tries to contradict the conclusion you induced, because your post is ambiguous, it could either support or refute Zof. So whatever conclusion someone else reaches, you could then claim they don’t understand you and win some e-peen victory.

Have a flag, my AC.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Depends on how you define the problem...

If you think the goal is to stop and prevent drug use or other crimes, then no, asset forfeiture is a miserable failure.

If you think the goal is to provide cops with an easy to use and reliable source of money on the other hand, then it works great.

As always one of the biggest annoyances(as opposed to the huge problem of cops acting like armed robbers) with robbery at badgepoint is that the problem would be trivial to all but eliminate with some simple changes(that police would and have fought tooth and nail against), namely ‘a conviction of the owner is required for forfeiture’ and ‘none of the proceeds from asset forfeiture goes to the agency/agencies involved’.

Two very simple changes and the number of goons with badges robbing everyone they could would plummet overnight, but since it would require standing up to the police and taking their favorite toy away very few politicians have the spine to do it.

John85851 (profile) says:

Spread the wealth

I know this has probably been brought up before, but if law enforcement agencies are so adamant about these seizures, I say we let them. Sure, this isn’t the right solution, but follow me for a minute.

The catch is that any funds they collect are sent to the state to be divided up into all of the state’s law enforcement agencies. I’d be willing to bet that seizures would suddenly stop if agencies saw their funds being spread out instead of going directly into their own budget.

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