Brian D. Kelly on the False Promise of Policing-for-Profit

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Brian D. Kelly
Show Date
December 29, 2019
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If you’re not outraged by civil asset forfeiture, you’re not paying attention. Many states have passed laws protecting their citizens from this “for-profit policing”, in which law enforcement seizes private property connected to alleged crimes before a person has even been convicted. Yet federal government has given local governments a loop-hole in the form of “equitable sharing programs” that remit hundreds of millions of dollars to agencies that cooperate with federal agencies on these often legally-questionable forfeitures.

Brian D. Kelly, PhD — associate professor of economics at Seattle University — recently authored a report titled, “Fighting Crime or Raising Revenue?”, which continues the outstanding work of the Institute for Justice in pushing back against governmental abuses of power. The report takes detailed data on civil asset forfeiture and looks at how effective it is at stopping crime. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions would have us believe that…

“[C]ivil asset forfeiture is a key tool that helps law enforcement defund organized crime, take back ill-gotten gains, and prevent new crimes from being committed, and it weakens the criminals and the cartels.”

The data, however, suggests a different theory: civil asset forfeiture is not primarily a tool for fighting crime, but rather for raising revenue in cash-strapped localities.

I’ve covered this practice periodically since Sarah Stillman brought it to the attention of the readers of The New Yorker in 2013. The cases spotlighted by Stillman and the IJ have included the most egregious abuses of power — and rightly so. As the nation’s leading public interest law firm, the IJ has used its limited resources masterfully to set solid precedents for the future. Most recently, in the case of Timbs v. Indiana, the IJ helped persuade the Supreme Court to vote unanimously in favor of a man whose expensive vehicle was seized in connection with a low-level drug offense. The value of the vehicle was well in excess of the maximum fine laid out by the State of Indiana, leading the court to overturn a lower ruling based on the “excessive fines” clause of the 8th amendment.

Kelly, on the other hand, relies less on the anomalies to make his case, instead demonstrating how ineffective the practice is on the whole in achieving its stated aims.

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