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Asset forfeiture can’t shake controversy, troubling conclusions

They sometimes go too far.

That was a point decidedly stressed in a Hilder Law blog post from earlier this year referencing police powers exercised pursuant to the so-called practice of “civil asset forfeiture.”

We spotlighted that tool in the firm’s January 10 entry. We stressed therein that legions of Americans believe law enforcers command too much leeway “in their efforts to seize property they allege is tied to criminal activity.”

Forfeiture’s adherents – concededly, limited to mostly state and federal law enforcement agencies – are unapologetic concerning forfeiture’s use and sheer reach. They say the practice of taking cash and other assets from criminal kingpins like drug lords puts a serious dent in organized crime.

Even critics concede that. They also point to a fundamental flaw in forfeiture’s exercise, though, namely this: its common employment against alleged wrongdoers accused of notably low-level criminal activity. Moreover, opponents say, authorities often keep seized assets even in cases where defendants are never convicted of a crime.

There are reams of empirical evidence to support that negative assessment of asset forfeiture, and they were closely culled in a report recently released by the national Institute for Justice.

That study concluded this: The lauded results of forfeiture routinely claimed by law enforcers are flatly overstated, with scant evidence pointing to any real effectiveness of the practice in deterring high-level criminal activity. And relevant data additionally indicate that a key purpose of police agencies exercising forfeiture powers is simply to raise revenue.

A national article citing that study also spotlights a Texas-linked survey of hundreds of asset forfeiture seizures. What those cases revealed was “that half of the [examined] cash seizures were for less than $3,000, and 20 percent of the cases were not accompanied by criminal charges.”

Such numbers are unquestionably troubling and go far toward explaining widespread condemnation of an increasingly unpopular police action.

Civil asset forfeiture is squarely in the news and seemingly destined for a material mauling in the court of public opinion.

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