Fighting Corruption in U.S. Civil Asset Forfeiture Requires State-by-State Reforms

Civil asset forfeiture is a judicial process through which law enforcement officials seize assets belonging to a person suspected of a crime. To be subject to forfeit, the assets in question must be either the proceeds of crime or were used to further that criminal activity, but in many jurisdictions, civil asset forfeiture does not require a criminal conviction, or even the formal filing of criminal charges, and the typical legal threshold is probable cause that the seized property is connected to criminal activity, rather than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard generally required for a criminal conviction.

In the international context, civil asset forfeiture is an integral component in the battle against corruption. Empowering law enforcement agencies to seize ill-gotten gains, without the need to first secure a criminal conviction, is one of the most effective methods of punishing corrupt actors and depriving them of the proceeds of their crimes. But civil asset forfeiture is not limited to seizing the proceeds of grand corruption, and in the United States, the civil asset forfeiture system, particularly at the state and local level, has itself has become a significant vector for corruption, albeit on a much smaller scale, with local officials taking advantage of lax oversight to use seized funds for their own personal benefit. For example, in March 2020, the Michigan State Attorney General’s Office brought charges against Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith, alleging that Smith and other county officials had misused forfeiture funds for things like personal home improvements (including a security system for Smith’s house and garden benches for several other employee’s homes), parties at country clubs, and campaign expenditures. Smith is far from the only public official accused of corruption relating to forfeiture funds. To take just a few other examples: State revenue investigators in Georgia used millions in forfeited assets to purchase travel and trinkets like engraved firearms; police officers in Hunt County, Texas awarded themselves personal bonuses of up to $26,000 from forfeiture accounts; and the District Attorney in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania leased a new personal car with forfeiture funds.

To be clear, there are concerns about the civil asset forfeiture system in the United States that run much deeper than the misappropriation of funds. Critics have vigorously attacked both the legal underpinnings of the civil forfeiture system as it currently exists in the U.S., as well the system’s implementation. But for the purposes of this post I want to bracket those larger issues to focus on the question of why the civil forfeiture systems at the state and local level in the United States pose especially high risks of corrupt misappropriation, and what might be done about this (assuming that the civil forfeiture system is here to stay, at least in the short term).

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