Forfeiture Transparency & Accountability: State-by-State and Federal Report Cards
News Release from Institute for Justice, January, 2017
LINK: Hawaii Asset Forfeiture Report Card
Every year, local, state and federal law enforcement agencies across the United States seize and keep billions of dollars in cash, cars, homes and other property using a legal tool called forfeiture. Criminal forfeiture requires that prosecutors prove people are guilty by securing a conviction before forfeiting their property as part of their punishment. But with civil forfeiture, police and prosecutors can typically seize property on the mere suspicion it was involved in a crime. Most often, no charges or convictions are ever required to permanently deprive people of their property. With both criminal and civil forfeiture, federal and most state laws permit law enforcement agencies to use the proceeds of the property they take to supplement their budgets, often with few restrictions.
Making matters worse, most of this forfeiture activity—criminal and civil—happens with little legislative or public oversight. So does most spending from forfeiture funds. This report examines forfeiture reporting requirements and practices for all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia and the U.S. departments of Justice and the Treasury. It finds that forfeiture programs nationwide suffer from a lack of transparency and accountability.
This lack of transparency and accountability is a problem for at least three reasons. First, it undermines the legislative branch’s power of the purse. Forfeiture funds are acquired outside normal budget appropriations. And without oversight, agencies can spend them secretively, subverting the democratic controls embodied by city councils, county commissions and legislatures.
Second, poor transparency and accountability make it difficult to properly evaluate forfeiture programs. Is forfeiture truly targeting criminals? And what are the costs? Absent requirements that key details be tracked and reported, there are few good ways of answering these and other important questions.
Third, weak transparency and accountability practices can compromise agencies’ duty to responsibly manage seized property. All seized property will eventually either be returned to owners or become public property and so must be tracked properly to avoid improper spending and other mishaps, such as disposing of seized property prematurely.
Improved transparency and accountability are no substitute for comprehensive reforms to civil forfeiture laws that fail to protect property and due process rights and give law enforcement agencies a financial stake in forfeiture efforts. Nonetheless, they are vitally important. And greater transparency can provide insight critical to forfeiture reform efforts.
The report cards grade states and federal departments on six key elements of forfeiture program transparency and accountability:
- Tracking seized property,
- Accounting for forfeiture fund spending,
- Statewide forfeiture reports,
- Accessibility of forfeiture records,
- Penalties for failure to file a report, and
- Financial audits of forfeiture accounts.
For each element, grades reflect the strength of existing forfeiture reporting laws and practices. The grading methodology is generous, giving credit wherever possible. Still, the grades reveal that much work remains to achieve transparency and accountability in state and federal forfeiture programs.
read … Forfeiture Transparency & Accountability
IJ: Hawaii One of only Four States With Bond Requirement for Asset Forfeiture Challenges
SA: Group gives state a D+ for asset seizure program