New polling data is shedding light on the widespread impact of pervasive property seizures under civil asset forfeiture laws. In both Utah and Florida, a substantial percentage of respondents — nearly one in ten, in fact — acknowledged that either they themselves or someone they knew had property seized without criminal charges being filed.
Civil asset forfeiture laws enable law enforcement officials to take property suspected of being used to commit or derived from a criminal act. Originally ramped up in the 1980s to target organized crime and drug organizations, civil forfeiture has since expanded dramatically. Today, more than 400 federal laws and countless state laws authorize the seizure and forfeiture of cars, cash, and real property, and these seizures are often based on little, if any, evidence (as opposed to mere hunches). Once forfeited, the seizing agency gets to keep and spend the revenue as it sees fit.
Much has been made of how widely used the once niche law enforcement tactic has become. In 2014, The Washington Post highlighted the fact that over a 13-year period, state and local law enforcement organizations conducted nearly 62,000 vehicle searches resulting in cash seizures along America’s highways and roads that netted more than $2.5 billion. One point seven billion dollars of that sum flowed back to the original seizing agency via the federal equitable sharing program — and every penny was beyond the control of local or state legislators.