Civil Asset Forfeiture: Living in a Criminal Society


Although terrorism, collegiate fascism, and the presidential race have been dominating the headlines, center-right groups have been looking at civil asset forfeiture, recently.  That’s when law enforcement agencies take people’s money and goods away from them out of suspicion that they were gained from illegal activity.  Typically, even if the person is absolved of wrongdoing, he or she must then take the further step of proving that he or she gained the property through lawful means.

FreedomWorks gives Rhode Island an F for its civil forfeiture laws because the government only has to show probable cause in order to take property (that is, it only has to be reasonable for law enforcement personnel to believe the property was gained illegally).  The burden then falls on the property owner to prove that the assumption is not reasonable, and if he or she fails, the agency keeps 90% of the money, sending 10% to fund a state-level drug abuse treatment program.

The Institute for Justice (IJ) gives Rhode Island a D-.  (It’s not immediately clear why the minor difference, but it looks like IJ does a more-in-depth analysis of how the law applies to different crimes and different types of property and might give more weight to the fact that the confiscating agency doesn’t get to keep all of the money.)  However, IJ also looks at state collections from federal asset forfeiture, on which Rhode Island is dead last.  According to IJ, federal “equitable sharing” returns up to 80% of cash and property value taken under suspicion of federal violations to state agencies.

Looking at national numbers, Bonnie Kristian notes that the federal government confiscated $4.5 billion from Americans in 2014, which was more money than burglars managed to steal ($3.9 billion).  Not all of the numbers are available specifically for Rhode Island, but it looks like government might be especially good at taking peoples money and things away, around here:

  • According to IJ, state, local, and other (non-federal) agencies took $1,251,363 from people in Rhode Island in 2014, while averaging $1,384,497 from 2009 on.
  • The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) puts Rhode Island’s take under equitable sharing at $17,026,355 in 2014, which is close to the $17,721,060 average that IJ reports for the state from 2000 through 2013.
  • If we multiply the incidents of particular crimes (according to FBI data) with national average values for each crime, we find that the the $18.3 million confiscated by state and local agencies and given to state agencies by the DOJ was much bigger than the estimated dollar value of any one type of crime that year:
    • Burglary: $10.9 million
    • Larceny-theft: $15.3 million
    • Motor vehicle theft: $12.0 million
    • Robbery: $649,083

Of course, civil asset forfeiture is just one of the ways in which government takes money from people.  When taxes, fines, and fees are added into the mix, it’s a safe bet that government manages to take more wealth from Rhode Islanders than just about any category of crime or business.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    Forgive me for not knowing the exact statute, but I recall a recent article about the Feds withdrawing from local authorities the right to seize cars in which drugs are found. I am not surprised. About 15 years ago I attended an auction of drug seized cars. All of the desirable cars were walled off and not readily visible to the public. I asked a uniformed official, who seemed like a regular guy. He informed me that “:the public never gets those cars”. A friend bought a Porsche that had been seized by the local police. He tells me it was “very funny”,no one seemed willing to sign the papers. We have all heard stories of the police “salting” cars in order to seize them. True? Don’t know.

    • Max

      I wouldn’t take anything this anti-police administration does as a sign of wrong doing by the cops. The real reason they pulled out was because of the some of the military grade weaponry and vehicles some agencies were buying, some of which showed up in Ferguson. Basically the move by Holder was mostly for show.