There is a very clear reason as to why law enforcement has so diligently defended the routine use of civil asset forfeiture: it’s extremely profitable.
A recent federal audit of Indiana law enforcement agencies has shown just how beneficial this practice has been to its officers by revealing that the state used more than $400,000 of seized assets to pay for salaries, “fringe” benefits, and overtime pay.
This controversial practice has earned the nickname policing for profit.As lax as the federal guidelines on asset forfeiture are, using seized funds to pay for personnel is strictly prohibited. But that didn’t stop Indiana law enforcement from finding creative ways to move the money around.
Policing for Profit
The controversial legal tool of asset forfeiture allows police officers and other law enforcement entities to seize money and physical property from anyone suspected of wrongdoing.
Unfortunately, as the Drug War and the War on Terror have both escalated over the last decade, national security has trumped liberty and the threshold for determining suspicious behavior has been lowered to include just about anyone.
Conveniently enough, routine traffic stops now frequently turn into “suspicious” situations as soon as the officer on the scene discovers that the driver is carrying large amounts of cash. This is precisely why the practice earned the nickname policing for profit. Since officers are “entitled” to keep a portion of the spoils, there are very few safeguards in place to protect innocent people from becoming victims of institutionalized highway robbery.
Officers of the law are profiting from the theft of innocent Americans.While many states have been successful in placing limitations on this practice over the years, the federal Equitable Sharing Program provides a loophole, allowing state law enforcement to act on behalf of the federal government, in exchange for a cut of the forfeited property, which is usually around 80 percent.
It was this same federal asset forfeiture program that allowed Indiana law enforcement to pay its officers with stolen money.
The Innocent Pay the Price
According to the federal guidelines on the Equitable Sharing Program, state agencies are prohibited from using forfeited funds to pay personnel costs “so that the prospect of receiving equitable sharing funds does not influence, or appear to influence, law enforcement decisions.”
This makes perfect sense; after all, it would be unjust to give officers incentive to accuse innocent people of criminal acts, since they stand to directly benefit from the situation.
While this safeguard may seem like a solid checks-and-balances system on paper, it hasn’t done much to stop local departments from using the money at their own discretion, which has often meant using it to pay for its officers’ salaries.
The federal guidelines do allow for one exception to the salary rule, however: if the funds are used to pay for the wages of an officer who has stepped in to replace a vacancy left by another officer leaving to join a special task force.
While this was true of an officer in Henry County, Indiana, the department had been using forfeited funds to pay the replacement over $40,000 more than the officer he was replacing. Since the base salary was, in fact, “allowable” or under the federal guidelines, the Inspector General only marked the extra $40,000 as “unallowable” on the part of Henry County.
Civil asset forfeiture will always be ripe for abuse.However, a recent Washington Post investigation found that 81 percent of those who have had money or property stolen through asset forfeiture have never actually been charged with a crime. Considering this, it is appalling that law enforcement is using this money to fund even a cent of their personnel costs at the expense of innocent bystanders.
No matter how the federal guidelines are framed to prevent abuse, at the end of the day officers of the law are profiting from the theft of American people, many of whom will never get their day in court because there were never any official charges filed.
In addition to the overpaid officer, the Inspector General found $165,000 of “unallowable” expenses within the state’s expenditures. This included an instance in Richmond County, where a $91,000 salary was being funded solely by forfeited funds. Henry County, as it turns out, had transferred around $380,000 to other departments and counties. Richmond was just one of several recipients.
Unfortunately, this federal program is not likely to go away anytime soon. Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions has been a huge advocate for this program which he believes to be integral to maintaining domestic law and order.
However, as Indiana’s audit has demonstrated, civil asset forfeiture will always be ripe for abuse because the entire system relies on incentivizing police officers to steal from those they have sworn an oath to protect.
Brittany Hunter is an associate editor at FEE. Brittany studied political science at Utah Valley University with a minor in Constitutional studies.