Civil Asset Forfeiture

The practice of civil asset forfeiture – a legal procedure based in civil law that is used by law enforcement officials to seize property allegedly involved in criminal activity – has drawn increased scrutiny in the U.S. in recent years, with increasing pressure from the public to reign in misuse of the practice.  There are few transparency requirements for most state and federal civil forfeiture laws, which have allowed law enforcement to largely avoid accountability for how they spend the proceeds of civil asset forfeiture.  Researchers should be aware that in many cases the only way to obtain information about how asset forfeiture funds are spent is through public records requests.

A recent public records request revealed that the Manhattan District Attorney’s office used  state-asset forfeiture funds to pay for work travel expenses, including overseas travel and stays in five-star hotels.  DAs are only permitted to spend asset forfeiture funds on “law enforcement” issues; however they are given wide discretion within that category in how they opt to spend the money.  While many district attorneys’ offices file annual reports accounting for asset forfeiture spending, the reports are typically not itemized and only contain broad categories.