America's law enforcement officers have been seizing a record amount of property from citizens, often without charging them with a crime, under the practice known as civil asset forfeiture. Cops took more stuff from people than burglars did last year, according to FBI data.
But despite calls for reform from lawmakers and advocacy groups, budget numbers recently released by the Office of National Drug Control Policy suggest forfeiture efforts will ramp up next year.
For fiscal year 2016, the Department of Justice has requested $297.2 million in funding to support the asset forfeiture activities of the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces. That's a $14 million increase over the previous year, and a 164 percent increase in drug-related asset forfeiture spending since 2008.
By contrast, the overall federal drug control budget has increased by only about 25 percent over the same period.
The Department of Justice did not respond to requests for comment on the reason behind the jump in spending. The ONDCP report notes that the Department of Justice uses those hundreds of millions of dollars to identify assets, prosecute cases and "manage the massive paper flow associated with forfeiture."
"The Asset Forfeiture Program not only represents an effective law enforcement tool against criminal organizations, but it also provides financial support to other Federal law enforcement efforts, remuneration and restitution to victims, and an additional source of funding for state and local law enforcement partners," the ONDCP report states.
But investigations by The Washington Post, American Civil Liberties Union, Institute for Justice and others have found that many forfeiture actions target not "criminal organizations," but rather regular citizens. An ACLU report earlier this year found that the median amount seized in forfeiture actions in Philadelphia amounted to $192. The Institute for Justice has found that the median forfeiture amounts in many states are just a couple hundred dollars.
Eighty-seven percent of federal forfeiture proceedings were civil cases, not criminal ones.
"My read on the requested increase in funding for the Asset Forfeiture Program is that DOJ anticipates that forfeiture activity conducted by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in the next fiscal year will continue to increase exponentially," said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, via email. "Forfeiture activity across the country has exploded since 2000 in large part due to the growing reliance by law enforcement on the use of civil asset forfeiture to bring a cash windfall to police budgets."
Many of the forfeiture cases brought in the past year have been initiated by drug enforcers. DEA agents in New Mexico took $16,000 from a man who planned to start a business because they didn't believe he got the cash through legal means. Drug cops in Michigan ransacked a soccer mom's house because they thought she committed a minor violation of Michigan's medical marijuana law. Authorities seized $11,000 from a college kid at an airport because his luggage "smelled like weed."
If the ONDCP's funding numbers are any indication, we could see even more cases like these next year.