How Police Can Take Your Money Without Convicting You of Anything

February 8th 2017

Kyle Jaeger

After a Texas sheriff complained to President Donald Trump that a state senator was seeking to reform a controversial law enforcement practice known as civil asset forfeiture, the president joked that he'd help "destroy" that lawmaker's career. The joke played well at the White House listening session, where county sheriffs from around the U.S. were hosted.

That's because asset forfeiture — the act of seizing the money and property of individuals and businesses suspected (but not always convicted) of crimes — is popular in law enforcement circles, helping to fund police departments and federal agencies. In most states, there are limited regulations dictating when civil asset forfeiture can be applied, or how the money can be used after its seized.

Civil rights advocates have long complained about alleged improper use of asset forfeiture programs — specifically concerning the seizure of money and property in the absence of a conviction. The state senator in question at the White House listening session is attempting to require convictions before police seize the assets of suspects.


Support for that reform measure isn't a partisan thing, however, winning support from both Republicans and Democrats, as Brad Cates, former director of the Justice Department's Office of Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering, told ATTN:. A Trump supporter himself, Cates said he believes the president will back a conviction requirement for civil asset forfeitures after he's fully briefed on the issue.

"What you have is departments taking things from people without arresting them and then using the proceeds," Cates told ATTN:. "We can easily see a potential conflict of interest."

So far, 11 states have passed laws prohibiting law enforcement agencies from seizing assets without a conviction, most recently in Ohio. In spite of those regulations, however, civil asset forfeitures are on the rise. Federal agencies seized more than $5 billion in assets in 2014, outpacing losses from burglaries that year, The Washington Post reported. Data on asset forfeitures at the state level, or from individual departments, are harder to come by due to the fact that they are not routinely audited, Cates said.

asset forfeiture

Asked why the room of county sheriffs seemed broadly amused by the prospect of the Texas state senator's career being destroyed, Cates said the issue was easy money.

"If you had a straight source of money — if you were addicted, as one might say, to a high like that — why in the world would you want to mess with trying to go to the legislature and get an appropriation when you've got your own money that you do with what you want?"