Civil forfeiture is a major source of non-appropriated revenue for government at all levels, as a 2015 report from the Institute for Justice highlights. Annual deposits into the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Fund reached $4.5 billion in 2014, with only 13 percent of such forfeitures coming after criminal convictions. Annual forfeiture revenue more than doubled across 14 states between 2002 and 2013.
The money derived from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s profiling efforts are no less staggering. According to USA Today, federal drug units attached to 15 of the nation’s largest airports seized over $209 million from at least 5,200 people over the last decade. Such seizures don’t necessarily ever see the inside of a courtroom. As the report details, people are usually just given a receipt and sent off to ponder how light their wallet suddenly feels — all without so much as an arrest.
Property owners wishing to contest such seizures usually have the cards stacked against them as well — as the attendant attorney fees, court fees, and loss of employment income are generally much higher than the value of the property itself. Most people don’t bother fighting it.
If this situation sounds like an abuse of constitutional due process, it is — and it gets worse. Because the property itself “commits” a crime under civil forfeiture, the burden of proof is on the property owner, who must prove that the property was not involved in criminal activity, or that he didn’t know, or couldn’t have known, that it would be used for that purpose. And since law-enforcement agencies usually get to retain most, if not all, forfeiture proceeds upon final disposition, this creates a perverse incentive to be as aggressive as possible in pushing civil forfeiture to its limits.