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Study raises questions about civil asset forfeiture

Law enforcement agencies in New Hampshire and around the country claim that civil asset forfeiture is a valuable tool in the war against crime. Asset forfeiture allows police to seize money, cars and other assets that they suspect are linked to criminal activity like drug trafficking, but a recent report from a nonprofit libertarian law firm suggests that the practice is used more often to raise revenue than to reduce crime.

The Institute of Justice studied data about asset forfeiture gathered by the Department of Justice over the last 10 years, and they discovered that each $1,000 raised by the practice only leads to about one more crime being solved for each 500 reported offenses. The figures suggest that police use the practice mainly to raise revenue, and data also reveals that forfeiture rates tend to increase sharply during times of economic upheaval.

Civil rights groups have long argued against asset forfeiture. The proceeds raised by selling seized assets are usually divided between police departments and prosecutors, and the owners of the assets are often not even charged with a crime. A study of 560 asset forfeitures in Texas revealed that no charges were filed in one in five cases, and the amount seized was less than $3,000 about half of the time. The studies also show that asset forfeiture is used disproportionately against poor and minority communities.

In New Hampshire, assets may only be seized when their owner is convicted of a crime. This means that prosecutors must establish guilt beyond any reasonable doubt before seized items can be sold. This is a difficult burden to meet, and experienced criminal defense attorneys may seek to make things even more challenging for prosecutors by raising questions about the conduct of police officers, the validity of searches and the reliability of witness testimony.

Source: The General Court of New Hampshire, Senate Bill 522

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