Civil Asset Forfeiture: Fighting Crime or Raising Revenue?

Forfeiture is a controversial tool governments use to take and keep property often without charging or convicting anyone with a crime. Police typically get a portion of the proceeds. Proponents argue forfeiture helps police fight crime, while critics counter letting police keep forfeiture proceeds encourages “policing for profit.” To test these opposing claims, this study—the most extensive and sophisticated of its kind—combines more than a decade’s worth of data from the nation’s largest forfeiture program, the Department of Justice’s equitable sharing program, with local crime, drug use and economic data from a variety of federal sources.

Results are clear: Forfeiture has no meaningful effect on crime fighting, but forfeiture activity does increase when local economies suffer. These results add to a growing body of research suggesting police pursue forfeiture less to fight crime than to raise revenue. Given this evidence and serious civil liberties concerns raised by forfeiture, forfeiture proponents should bear the burden of proof when opposing reforms that would keep police focused on fighting crime, not raising revenue.