Civil forfeiture cash seizures

by on September 8, 2014 at 12:42 am in Economics, Law | Permalink

Under the federal Equitable Sharing Program, police have seized $2.5 billion since 2001 from people who were not charged with a crime and without a warrant being issued. Police reasoned that the money was crime-related. About $1.7 billion was sent back to law enforcement agencies for their use.

Often the cash is seized from motorists (carrying costs now exceed liquidity premium, I suppose).  There is this too:

  • Only a sixth of the seizures were legally challenged, in part because of the costs of legal action against the government. But in 41 percent of cases — 4,455 — where there was a challenge, the government agreed to return money. The appeals process took more than a year in 40 percent of those cases and often required owners of the cash to sign agreements not to sue police over the seizures.
  • Hundreds of state and local departments and drug task forces appear to rely on seized cash, despite a federal ban on the money to pay salaries or otherwise support budgets. The Post found that 298 departments and 210 task forces have seized the equivalent of 20 percent or more of their annual budgets since 2008.

There is much more here, by Michael Sallah, Robert O’Harrow Jr., and Steven Rich at The Washington Post, give them a Pulitzer.

And please note, this may seem like an Alex post but it is a Tyler post.

1 Just an Australian September 8, 2014 at 12:47 am

I’m not familiar with 3rd world customs like these – police can just steal money?

2 Cliff September 8, 2014 at 12:54 am


3 Michael September 8, 2014 at 1:16 am

The US is the best third-world country. You can drink the water!

4 wesley September 8, 2014 at 1:20 am

Incorrect. South Africa has better tap water than the USA.

5 Michael September 8, 2014 at 1:24 am

Does it come with free natural gas right in the water? Energizing!

6 a visitor to Australia September 8, 2014 at 2:51 am

You may not have noticed (presumably you are not a drug kingpin) but the Proceeds of Crime Acts allow the various states to carry out similar seizures in Australia.

7 Just an Australian September 8, 2014 at 3:26 am

Well, I admit to not being a drug kingpin, but they are allowed to seize it from people they don’t even charge? I’m pretty sure they can’t

8 a visitor to Australia September 8, 2014 at 5:19 am

Yes. If one is suspected of obtaining the money as the proceeds of a criminal enterprise they can take the money/assets from you, without charges being laid, and with the reverse onus of proof you are then required to demonstrate that it was obtained lawfully before you can get it back. All that is required is that you have substantial unexplained assets. This is the technical position but I am unsure as to how often it is applied in this direct manner, in most cases asset seizure seems to go hand in hand with the criminal charges. Interestingly there was a case a little while ago of a man who successfully defended drug trafficking charges but still was unable (up to that point) of getting back the large sum of cash he was arrested with.

9 Just an Australian September 8, 2014 at 5:24 am

Sigh… I guess I should have known better. Anything the big bro can do, the little one can copy.

10 Alexei Sadeski September 8, 2014 at 6:39 am

“All that is required is that you have substantial unexplained assets.”

That is a dramatically higher standard than found in the US.

11 Mondfledermaus September 8, 2014 at 1:57 pm

In Louisiana, cops can only keep part of the seized money, by law they have to share it with the DA and the Judge.

12 albatross September 8, 2014 at 9:07 am

Ah, but here, the police shakedown operation is overseen by the whole criminal justice system out in the open, not just done quietly between you and the cops shaking you down in person.

13 Marius September 8, 2014 at 12:51 am

In Norway, it is now being debated whether police departments should be able to keep a greater cut of cash seizures. Wouldnt that make them shift their investigative efforts towards crime which could potentially lead to seizure?

14 Cliff September 8, 2014 at 12:54 am


15 Dan Weber September 8, 2014 at 9:17 am

Wouldnt that make them shift their investigative efforts towards crime which could potentially lead to seizure?

Yes, except replace the word “crime” with “activity.”

16 JWatts September 8, 2014 at 6:26 pm

Or replace the word police with Mafia.

17 Doug September 8, 2014 at 12:51 am

“And please note, this may seem like an Alex post but it is a Tyler post.”

Is this related in a Straussian way to yesterday’s linked assorted links post about cyranoids?

18 Enrique September 8, 2014 at 1:15 am

Another reason to fear the police … or should we say “tax collectors with guns”

19 Nathan W September 8, 2014 at 11:17 am

the old fashioned way …

20 Anon September 8, 2014 at 2:40 am

“Possession is 9 points of the Law.” And guess when the “LAW” is involved, possession is 10 points of the Law.

21 Granite26 September 9, 2014 at 11:02 am

I think you mean (gaining) possession is 10/10 (the whole) points of the law

22 chip September 8, 2014 at 3:20 am

There are an increasing number of smart people with wealth/ideas who would like a country with ample personal and economic freedom.

The US is becoming a less attractive destination all the time. Though it remains the least worst of a bad bunch.

An Australia or Canada should fill the space left by an increasingly statist US by embracing a broad range of freedoms.

It wouldn’t be difficult. Just copy Singapore’s approach to established and new businesses, coupled with the benefit of amazing geography, and boom.

23 Just an Australian September 8, 2014 at 3:27 am

Cause Singapore is not statist?

24 prior_approval September 8, 2014 at 3:37 am

From a certain American perspective, Singapore has the right sort of statism.

25 Chip September 8, 2014 at 8:38 am

I did specifically say their approach to business.

26 prior_approval September 8, 2014 at 9:22 am

Good point.

So, Singapore is a model for how it treats media companies? –


The Media Development Authority (MDA) approves publications, issues arts entertainment licences and enforces the Free-to-air (FTA) TV Programme Code, Subscription TV Programme Code, TV Advertising Code, Radio Programme Code and Radio Advertising Code through financial penalties. The MDA’s decisions may be appealed to the Broadcast, Publications and Arts Appeal Committee (BPAA) and the Films Appeal Committee (FAC).

The Censorship Review Committee (CRC) meets every ten years to “review and update censorship objectives and principles to meet the long-term interests of our society”. The CRC was most recently reconvened in 2009 and made some 80 recommendations the following year, most of which were accepted.


The Government of Singapore argues that censorship of political, racial and religious issues to a certain extent is necessary to avoid upsetting the delicate balance of Singapore’s multi-racial society.’

27 JWatts September 8, 2014 at 6:41 pm

That is a pretty good point. No decent First World country engages in broad censorship.

28 andrew' September 8, 2014 at 4:55 am

Well, just don’t copy the parts where you execute 19 year old girlfriends muling tiny amounts of drugs.

29 Chip September 8, 2014 at 8:42 am

Is there a secret algorithm at work that strips the word “business” from my posts?

The point is to take the best bits from various places (Aus, Cad, Sin) and make something better.

I’m almost afraid to read further down the thread in case I discover that an IQ stripping plague has erupted over the weekend.

30 Urso September 8, 2014 at 2:15 pm

Very few businesses post here.

31 Dan Weber September 8, 2014 at 9:19 am

How is Ray Lopez supposed to trade to a newer model?

32 a visitor to Australia September 8, 2014 at 5:22 am

Don’t Canada and Australia already have more freedom restrictions than the USA ?
(freedom in a libertarian sense)

33 Adrian Ratnapala September 8, 2014 at 5:36 am

Yes they do. In some ways they appear freer, because the encroachments that cause a lot of noise in the US just pass by without comment. I once asked an Australian constitutional lawyer of staunchly libertarian sentiments about Kelo. We discussed it a while, and then I asked whether such things happen in Australia, and his response was something like “Oh, I don’t know. I assume it happens all the time, nobody cares”.

Regarding forfeiture though, I suspect something is sick in the US. Other countries might have similar laws, but they don’t seem to use it as a routine revenue raising measure.

34 Andrew' September 8, 2014 at 6:59 am

People don’t really care in the US either until the media distorts it into a narrative that goes along with the current popular delusion (e.g. racism or homophobia).

I have known about this for nearly 20 years and can do nothing about it. I suspect if I talked to the median voter, they wouldn’t realize that it happens. Then if I spent 15 minutes explaining it their initial reaction would be “it’s good, because we have to get the drug dealer/gang bangers where it hurts!”

How far into “well, police-citizen contacts are really about serving warrants and now more and more about seizing cash” do you think I’m going to get with the median voter…if they would ever talk to me in the first place?

35 Slocum September 8, 2014 at 7:19 am

One reason these abuses have little visibility with the median voter is the police generally don’t do these things to them. The median voter doesn’t really believe this is much of a problem because it has never happened to them or anyone they know. The same goes for middle-of-the-night SWAT raids.

36 Andrew' September 8, 2014 at 8:19 am

Democracy is decent, but it has some blind spots. My question is whether these blinds spots are a feature or a bug. The cops, or at least the infinitesimal minority who possess some self-reflective capacity, I would suspect know they couldn’t do this more generally and know they are exploiting a weakness in accountability and getting away with a short-lived thing.

37 charlie September 8, 2014 at 8:56 am

I’d say the operating hook here is racism.

You are looking at about 12 a day.

The average (or median — they don’t specify) seized is around 9000.

I do have a hard time understanding why someone would have $9000 in cash on them. No idea the “unbanked” were so rich.

I mean, if you believe other stats, something like 1/2 of americans don’t have access to $4000 in cash in an emergency.

There could be a good case that targeting mexicans (or illegals as people like to call them) you are commiting some sort of civil rights issue. And I can see why such an individual might have that much cash on them, although again that seems high.

The interesting statstic not mentioned is how large the stash would need to be to justify going to court getting it back. I’d guess the cost might be in the 2000 range for a lawyer. Perhaps more. Given the generally low number of legal appeals, I’d say the program might be working.

(None of that justifies the program or the legal burden shifting. But the evidence cited suggested it does work against drug dealers, with perhaps some harm done to illegals.)

38 Dan Weber September 8, 2014 at 9:21 am

I mostly agree with Charlie, in that “most people cannot imagine this happening to them.” And not just because “I’m white” but because “I wouldn’t carry around big loads of cash.”

(And I don’t carry around big loads of cash, but 1. some people might want to, and 2. I’d like the right to do so if I wanted to.)

39 Slocum September 8, 2014 at 9:33 am

“I do have a hard time understanding why someone would have $9000 in cash on them.”

One common reason for lower-income people to carry that kind of money is when they are buying a used car from a private party. I have a working class relative who is always buying and selling used cars (partly as a hobby and partly in an attempt to make a little money ‘horse trading’). The deals are always in cash. And then there are immigrants from countries with untrustworthy banks who are culturally accustomed to buying houses and businesses with cash. Some of them have also been robbed by the highway bandits in blue.

40 chuck martel September 8, 2014 at 10:15 am

The idea that carrying large amounts of cash should be suspicious behavior is indicative of tyranny in itself. Now banks, even foreign banks, are required to report to US agencies transactions of $10,000 by US citizens. It seems that money, regardless of how it might be obtained, remains the property of the government. It is used by their authority.

41 Andrew' September 8, 2014 at 10:45 am

Let’s say it is always drugs.

What is the benefit of grabbing $9000 compared to the cost of having cops always looking for this score?

42 Chip September 8, 2014 at 8:45 am

I said they should embrace more freedom.

(Oh boy)

43 Just an Australian September 8, 2014 at 5:41 pm

“Don’t Canada and Australia already have more freedom restrictions than the USA” – yes, we do, but we also have less restrictions in other respects. We care about different things (though there’s not that much alignment between what we care about and what the restrictions are)

44 Nathan W September 8, 2014 at 11:18 am

If you want to go live in Singapore, go live in Singapore.

This is a free country. You are free to leave.

If you want freedom please stay. Or go.

45 charlie September 8, 2014 at 12:56 pm

I am very familiar with the buying/selling of used cars from private parties.

And yes, it is a cash business.

Again, how many immigrant/undocumented/working class people have acces to over 8K in cash? For a car.

I paid over 2K for an designer sofa once in cash, and that might have been the largest amount that I dealt with.

This is a general intoduction, but there is no way I am taking 9K for my car in twenty dollar bills.

46 andrew' September 8, 2014 at 4:38 am

Funny how facts can seem to have a personality. It was the first thing I checked but I wasn’t surprised.

Why would they even give any of the money back? It must just be less work to do so.

47 Eric S. September 8, 2014 at 8:23 am

Sorry but Radley Balko (who’s been on this beat for years) deserves the Pulitzer for his related article about policing and poverty:

48 CG September 8, 2014 at 10:23 am

It’s been a very good week for Post reporters. Both stories are great and award-worthy.

49 Go Kings, Go! September 8, 2014 at 11:07 am

…And only about 7 years behind Reason in reporting abusive civil asset forfeiture, militarization of the police, ridiculous sentencing guidelines and other Drug War damage to civil liberties. I’m glad WaPo finally noticed and all, but it’s basically following a well trodden path.

(much of Reason’s earlier work is Balko’s; he is an American hero).

50 anon2 September 8, 2014 at 8:33 am

So the story says that, “Police can seize cash that they find if they have probable cause to suspect that it is related to criminal activity. The seizure happens through a civil action known as asset forfeiture. Police do not need to charge a person with a crime. The burden of proof is then on the driver to show that the cash is not related to a crime by a legal standard known as preponderance of the evidence.”

How is that not an obvious violation of the 5th Amendment? “No person shall be…deprived of… property, without due process of law…”

51 Dan Weber September 8, 2014 at 9:35 am

Unfortunately, you often need lawyers to defend your rights. Maybe we need a nation-wide org that provides legal support to victims of these acts, not just providing legal services to get money back but also to pursue charges against the offending agencies..

52 Go Kings, Go! September 8, 2014 at 11:09 am

Institute for Justice (one this era’s great civil rights organizations) is a good candidate.

53 Michael B Sullivan September 8, 2014 at 2:43 pm

I have read in other articles on asset forfeiture that the authorities simply return the property of victims who seem like they could plausibly appeal up the chain to a court that might rule the forfeiture unconstitutional. And so their cases stop, because they got back their property.

54 albatross September 8, 2014 at 2:49 pm

Because when the ruling class more-or-less closes ranks and decides that they’re in favor of something, it turns out to be constitutional, regardless of any overly-narrow definition that might come of reading what the constitution actually says. And similarly, when the ruling class more-or-less closes ranks and decides they’re against something, it turns out to be unconstitutional, even if it was always constitutional until last week. Sometimes, those decisions lead to good policy, as with getting rid of antisodomy laws. Sometimes, those decisions lead to bad policy, as with no-trial property seizures. But my impression is that it often has much less to do with what’s in the constitution than with what the majority of a panel of lifetime-appointed politicians decides would be a good policy to pursue.

55 ohwilleke September 8, 2014 at 5:50 pm

I have litigated civil forfeitures, and in general, they are very hard cases to win. This is particularly true, ironically, when the amount of money is small, which makes the cost of litigation relative to the amount seized, great. Generally, even a prevailing party in an asset forfeiture case will not get his or her attorneys’ fees back.

56 JonFraz September 9, 2014 at 8:27 am

The legal theory behind this is that the property is guilty and since it’s property it has no legal rights (see: Dred Scott case). This produces ludicrous titles for the actions: “The United States of America vs a Yacht”, “The State of Florida vs 10,000 in Cash”. The future will be laughing at us the way we laugh about medieval courts trying roosters for not crowing at dawn.

57 chuck martel September 8, 2014 at 8:45 am

There’s a direct correspondence between this subject and that of a previous post on Nazi death camp guards. It’s acceptable to do evil things to people if the government tells you to.

58 HL September 8, 2014 at 6:49 pm

The lesson here is not that “following orders” is wrong, rather there’s really good reason for civilians to be wary of those giving the orders.

59 Richard H September 8, 2014 at 8:45 am

Is this an example of “increased productivity” by police?

60 Andrew' September 8, 2014 at 11:25 am

“bury cash in glass jars…”

61 Willitts September 8, 2014 at 11:15 am

LOL, I immediately thought it was an Alex post and had to check the author’s name. Even the writing style tricked me.

OK, if the respondent to the seizure doesnt challenge it, doesnt that suggest they risk something in doing so?

The probabilities here are plagued with self-selection issues, and the implications of the stats are therefore exaggerated.

We should definitely be worried about what happens with that cash although the rationale for taking it is superficially plausible. The militarization of our police is funded with this money.

62 Nathan W September 8, 2014 at 11:20 am

If 41% of cases resulted in money being returned, then how many of the non-challenged cases should have been returned? It’s easy to argue that it’s proof of guilt.

An alternative explanation is that the cops stole their money and now they cant afford a lawyer. 20%? 30%? How many hundreds of millions annually?

In some cases this may imply guilt. But in many of those cases, they are guilty of nothing but such poverty as to be unable to afford a lawyer after getting jacked by the cops.

63 Andrew' September 8, 2014 at 11:42 am

If only we had some system that could determine guilt without having to conclude it based on implied guilt 😉

“They quickly issued warnings or tickets. They studied drivers for signs of nervousness, including pulsing carotid arteries, clenched jaws and perspiration. They also looked for supposed “indicators” of criminal activity, which can include such things as trash on the floor of a vehicle, abundant energy drinks or air fresheners hanging from rearview mirrors.”

Turns out I’m a drug trafficker. And here I thought I just had small kids!

64 Dan Weber September 8, 2014 at 12:34 pm

One of the tactics is to find a family on vacation with kids and cash, because the officers can threaten to arrest the parents (you can beat the rap but you can’t beat the ride) for not signing a waiver, which would leave the kids in a faraway state without their parents around.

65 Craig September 8, 2014 at 11:42 am

Conservative/libertarian magazines have been screaming about this for 15-20 years. Now the mainstream media notices…Did someone at the Washington Post get pulled over recently or something?

66 JWatts September 8, 2014 at 6:48 pm

More accurately, a Libertarian writer (Radley Balko) got hired by The Washington Post.

67 Scoop September 8, 2014 at 1:48 pm

Does anyone know if any researchers have ever gone back and tried to establish what percentage of all the seized assets (probably) are from illegal activity and what percentage are legitimate assets stolen by the police?

I’d still be against this even if it turns out that nearly all of these assets are, in fact, the spoils of crime — the burden of proof should always be with the authorities — but fixing it would be a lot lower priority for me than if a large percentage of the seizures were highly dubious.

68 Jon R September 8, 2014 at 2:53 pm

I disagree w.r.t sushi restaurants.

Unless you are going to a very high-end establishment, there is a nonzero chance that the 5pm crowd will be served leftover fish from a previous day (I assume FiFO inventory management practices).

I prefer to eat sushi in the later hours for this reason. Generalize to restaurants with reliance on highly perishable items if you wish.

69 Marc September 8, 2014 at 4:47 pm

How about instead of handing out Pulitzer prizes, readers in support of solving this issue donate to the Institute for Justice? They are litigating this issue.

70 Eric H September 8, 2014 at 9:49 pm

This is one of those topics that organizations like Cato and Reason have been publicizing for 10 years or more without catching the eye of the intelligentsia at places like CrookedTimber. Witness the big nothing that happened after Kelo, in which they didn’t know what to think except that private property laws only benefit wealthy people so no big loss there, eh? Eventually, something like Ferguson will occur in the context of the seizure of the assets of photogenic poor people, and in the hand-wringing after the mayhem, they’ll acknowledge that yes, poor people do have some property that they’d rather not part with, that poor people don’t have lawyers on retainer, and maybe remember that Radley Balko mentioned something about it and reluctantly admit in a footnote or comment that Reason — like the proverbially broken clock — may accidentally be right about something on occasion.

But it is not a real issue for them until it hits the evening news and they discover the implications for the first time.

71 Granite26 September 9, 2014 at 11:05 am

So… still waiting for someone to come up with a solution for this better than voting for third party candidates or armed revolt.

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