Civil Asset Seizure Rules Pad Police Pocketbooks

Published December 14, 2014

Actor and director Mel Brooks once famously observed, “It’s good to be the king,” but it’s also very profitable to be the lawman.

In 1984, Congress passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, permitting local and national law enforcement agencies to share the rewards of seized assets and cash among one another. Between the law’s passage and 1993, a total of $3 billion in cash and property flowed through the nationalized Asset Forfeiture Program to local and national law enforcement agencies.

The intent of the program, quipped Attorney General Richard Thornburgh in 1989, was to allow “a drug dealer to serve time in a forfeiture-financed prison after being arrested by agents driving a forfeiture-provided automobile while working in a forfeiture-funded sting operation.”

In 1986, two years after the program’s creation, law enforcement agencies collected $93.7 million. Twenty-two years later, in 2008, the asset-sharing program collected more than $1 billion: a 967 percent increase. If the national Asset Forfeiture Program’s 1986 size were represented by Earth, its size in 2008 would be represented by the planet Jupiter.

To paraphrase programming expert Joel Spolsky, a man’s behavior maximizes the thing you’re paying him for, but it doesn’t maximize the thing you really care about—and government agencies are no different. 

As seizing civil assets became increasingly rewarding, police departments began to seek ways to maximize the efficiency of “stop-and-seizure” tactics. In the late 1980s and 1990s, consulting firms began to crop up, teaching cops how to increase the effectiveness of their seizure efforts. Private intelligence networks were also created in hopes of allowing cops to trade reports and share tips on asset forfeiture.

One such online police community, called Black Asphalt—created by self-styled asset-seizure guru and former law enforcement agent Joe David—targeted American citizens accused of no crimes, as cops and government agents shared law enforcement records on innocent people. As reported by The Washington Post, Black Asphalt was not simply a place to swap hunches and sensitive identifying data; members held photo contests with stacks of seized currency and competitions tracking who could confiscate the most currency.

Contest winners are recognized by their fellow super-troopers at an annual national conference in Virginia Beach, VA that’s partially sponsored by the Virginia State Police—and, in turn, taxpayers.

Although perhaps initially well-intentioned, the harassment and targeting of citizens by law enforcement agents needs to end. Law enforcement should be conducted for the sake of keeping the peace, not for agencies’ financial enrichment or officers’ banal entertainment.