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How does asset forfeiture impact low income communities?

How Asset Forfeiture Impacts Low Income Communities

Asset forfeiture is a controversial practice that allows police to seize property, like cars and cash, that they suspect is connected to criminal activity. The property can be taken without ever charging someone with a crime. While asset forfeiture is meant to fight crime, it often impacts low income communities the most.

Police and prosecutors say asset forfeiture helps them disrupt drug trafficking and other organized crime by letting them seize illicit proceeds. But civil liberties groups argue the practice goes too far, lacks oversight, and unfairly targets poor people and minorities who may lack the resources to fight back.

What is civil asset forfeiture?

There are two main types of asset forfeiture:

  • Criminal forfeiture happens after someone is convicted of a crime. This is less controversial.
  • Civil forfeiture happens without any criminal charges. Police can seize property just by showing there’s a connection, or “nexus,” to possible criminal activity.

With civil forfeiture, the property itself is accused of being tied to crime. Police file a case against the cash, car, home, etc. – not the owner. That means they can take assets without even charging someone, let alone getting a conviction. The owner must then fight to prove their property is “innocent” to get it back.

How asset forfeiture impacts low income communities

While asset forfeiture is meant to fight organized crime, in practice it often ensnares low income people who can’t afford to challenge seizures in court:

  • Police disproportionately seize property and cash in poor neighborhoods and communities of color. Residents may carry cash because they lack access to banking. And they often lack financial resources to contest seizures.
  • To get their property back, owners must navigate complex legal proceedings they may not understand. Contesting a seizure can be expensive and difficult without a lawyer.
  • In many states, police get to keep seized assets and spend the proceeds, creating a profit motive and incentive to take property.
  • Only about 20% of federal forfeitures are legally contested, in part due to the costs. Of those contested, many get settled because the owner can’t afford drawn out proceedings.
  • Low income individuals may lose vehicles they depend on for work or to take care of family. The impact can be devastating.

These factors mean poor people often fail to get their property returned even when they’ve done nothing wrong. The practice raises serious civil liberties concerns.

Lack of oversight and abuse

Critics argue the profit incentive leads police to overuse and abuse asset forfeiture. There are many cases of questionable seizures:

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  • A man had $11,000 seized during a traffic stop but was never charged with a crime. It took him two years and a lawyer to get his money back.
  • Customs agents seized $41,000 from a Christian band, claiming it was drug money. The band was held for hours but never charged. A judge later ruled the seizure was baseless.
  • A family’s $50,000 savings was seized during a traffic stop. Despite no evidence of drug activity, they had to fight in court for over a year before getting their money back.

There are many cases of people having cash, cars or homes seized over minor crimes or with little evidence. And once property is seized, getting it back can be extremely difficult and expensive without legal help.

Lack of government oversight

Another issue is agencies don’t have to report much data on forfeitures, making it hard to analyze trends and abuses. And in many states, agencies get to keep the assets they seize, which critics argue distorts policing priorities:

  • A 2020 federal report found limited data makes it “difficult to determine how often seizures occur, indicators of program effectiveness, and whether seizures disproportionately impact minorities and low-income communities.”
  • Letting police keep seized assets creates a “profit motive” some experts say leads agencies to over-rely on the practice.
  • Most states don’t require tracking or reporting on forfeitures. This limits oversight and transparency.

With little oversight, critics argue forfeiture is misused, overused, and prone to abuse.

Disproportionate impact on minorities

Studies suggest asset forfeiture also disproportionately impacts minorities:

  • A 2020 study found Black drivers accounted for over 1/3 of cash seizures in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, despite making up only 15% of drivers.
  • Black men were found to account for 35% of cash seizures but only make up 14% of the population in Philadelphia.
  • A national study found significant racial disparities in forfeitures, even after controlling for crime rates and demographics. The authors noted “a persistent pattern of discrimination.”

Critics argue this reflects broader racial biases in policing and the justice system.

Reform efforts

There have been some efforts at the state and federal level to reform forfeiture laws and add protections:

  • Some states now require a criminal conviction before assets can be forfeited.
  • Others have raised the legal standard for seizures, or limited how agencies can use forfeiture proceeds.
  • There are also calls for more data collection, reporting requirements, and community oversight.
  • On the federal level, there have been proposals to limit “equitable sharing” payments where local and state police collaborate with federal agencies.

But many critics argue reforms haven’t gone far enough. Meaningful change will require lawmakers to closely examine how forfeiture is used and develop stronger protections for property rights.

The impact on low income communities

Asset forfeiture, especially civil forfeiture, raises serious civil liberties concerns. While further study is needed, available evidence suggests it disproportionately ensnares those most vulnerable and least able to fight back. Losing property can be devastating for low income families. Reform advocates argue the practice must be reined in with stronger oversight and protections to prevent abuse.

Police and district attorneys argue asset forfeiture is an important tool for disrupting organized crime by targeting illicit proceeds. But there are real concerns about overuse and abuse, lack of transparency, and harm to poor communities. With reform, perhaps asset forfeiture could be made fairer and more accountable. But as things stand, it seems poised to remain controversial.











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