The politics of civil asset forfeiture

Published 6:41 pm Friday, November 30, 2018

Most of you probably don’t know of Alexander Temple.  I never heard of him before this year.  But an alert reader sent me a topic to research, with a story about this man, and how Civil Asset Forfeiture policies vary from state-to-state.  And my students found that politics, economic and social factors play a great role in whether states give more power to police or the suspect.

In October of 2016, Temple (a Maine resident) was pulled over on I-95 in New Hampshire for a routine traffic stop. Police in that state seized $46,000 from Temple, claiming they felt it would be used for illegal activity. Though Temple was released without ever facing a single criminal charge, the police kept the cash. A man named Edward Phipps claimed the money was his, but after two years of legal wrangling, Phipps was able to only get $7,000 back in a court settlement.  He still hasn’t been charged with anything.

My research methods students were intrigued by the topic, and began researching states for their standards for seizure of civil assets, how much do police have to report of assets taken, and what does law enforcement get to keep.

We found that in eight states, police need only a “reasonable suspicion” to seize one’s assets.  Another 25 require just a preponderance of evidence to take the money or assets. A minority (18) require either a “clear and convincing” evidence standard, or one that is “beyond a reasonable doubt”, or require a criminal conviction before assets can be taken.

Of all the states, nearly three-quarters require the civil assets taken to be reported in detail.  Nearly half of all states allow the police to keep what they take, with 17 allowing law enforcement to keep some, with nine not allowing police to keep any of it.

Our students did statistical analyses on nearly 20 political, economic and social factors, learning how to do a hypothesis test, to see if a state’s civil asset forfeiture policies benefit the suspect, or lean toward law enforcement. And here is what we found.

We found that politics played a huge role in how states administer their civil asset forfeiture policies. States that voted for Trump, had a Republican Governor, or had a state legislature controlled by the GOP, were far more willing to give law enforcement a lot of leeway to seize assets (a lower standard of seizure, less need to report details, and keep assets seized). 

States with higher unemployment rates give the police a lot more power to seize assets). Also, states with higher population numbers and population density also gave more power to law enforcement to take and keep assets.

When it comes to crime, there’s a mixed message. States with a high violent crime rate would give more power to law enforcement on civil asset forfeiture. But states that had a larger number of police, and more lax marijuana laws, gave more power to the suspect, making it hard for police to seize a person’s assets. Several of the students who worked on the project traveled to Savannah to present their findings to professors and graduate students at the Georgia Political Science Association (GPSA), getting some good feedback on their paper and presentation.