Proponents of civil asset forfeiture often claim that it’s an important tool for targeting major drug dealers. We have to deprive them of ill-gotten gains, the thinking goes, and letting police departments and prosecutors’ offices keep those gains provides a good incentive to target the kingpins.
The problem with that argument is that studies on forfeiture frequently show that the typical person whose property is seized is not a kingpin, but at best a low- or mid-level offender. Most of the time, the person is never convicted of any crime.
Reason magazine and Lucy Parsons Labs — a police oversight nonprofit — obtained the location of thousands of forfeitures in Chicago and plotted them on a map. The results are pretty striking.
Altogether, police in Cook County performed 23,065 seizures between 2012 and 2017 using asset forfeiture, including 5,939 vehicles. Chevrolet Impalas, among the most popular rental cars in the U.S., were the model most often seized. About three-quarters of all seizures occurred in Chicago. The average estimated value of a seizure was $4,553, while the median value was $1,049. About three-quarters of all seizures were cash, not property …
Civil liberties groups have often claimed asset forfeiture disproportionately impacts poor and minority communities. When these police seizure locations are mapped, it shows that, although seizures happened nearly everywhere in Chicago and the surrounding area, low-income neighborhoods like the South Side and West Side were more frequently the targets of asset forfeiture.
“This data shows what we already know, that the seizures tried by CCSAO overwhelming steal the possessions of poor people,” Lucy Parsons Labs says in a statement to Reason. “The data shows that the seizures are clumped in the South and West side, overwhelmingly African-American neighborhoods. This provides more evidence that the war on drugs is a racist policy that must be ended.”
This isn’t terribly surprising. But it’s nice to have more empirical data to hammer home the point.
Illinois has some of the most pro-law-enforcement forfeiture laws in the country. Police and prosecutors get to keep up to 90 percent of what they seize, and for an innocent person, the process of filing to get seized property returned is onerous and confusing. For most people, the time, hassle, court fees and attorney fees cost more than the value of the property. Perversely, these costs and inconveniences disproportionately affect the innocent. Innocents are almost certainly more concentrated among your average motorist or guy on the street who is wrongly stopped and stripped of his cash. Larger seizures will more likely be cases in which police have been building a case against a major drug distributor. But a major drug distributor has more incentive and means to fight to get the property returned.
The problem only gets worse when you look at low-dollar seizures.
For example, roughly 11,000 seizures in Cook County over the five-year period were for amounts lower than $1,000. Nearly 1,500 were for amounts under $100.
Filtering out higher dollar amounts shows those petty seizures were even more tightly clustered in the South and West Side of Chicago.
While the list of seized items contains common tools of the drug trade such as safes, digital scales, and money counters, it also contains things like flashy jewelry, flatscreen TVs, and a copy of the Call of Duty: Ghosts video game.
“Not only has law enforcement in Chicago snatched a staggering amount of money through forfeiture in recent years, much of what they have taken is small-dollar properties,” Dick Carpenter, director of strategic research for the Institute for Justice, says of the data. “Despite claims by forfeiture proponents, this is hardly the stuff of vast drug networks and crime bosses.”
The pattern of seizures being clustered in lower-income neighborhoods is consistent at a smaller, block-by-block level as well, says Hilary Gowins, content director at the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative policy think-tank that supports legislation in Illinois to tighten rules for asset forfeiture.
“The North Side is known for being the affluent side, but one of the only neighborhoods that’s not as well-to-do is Rogers Park,” Gowins says. “It’s got a lot of problems with crime. In that area, you’ll see a lot of dots.”
Civil asset forfeiture is basically a license for police to steal from the poor. No, not all police departments do it. But it provides a strong incentive for it. Low-income people are more likely to be targeted, more likely to be seen by law enforcement as potential drug offenders, more likely to have cash taken from them in amounts too small to merit the trouble associated with getting it back, and less likely to have access to legal assistance to get it back even if they wanted to.