Research Raises Questions About ‘Policing for Profit’
Two UT Dallas Criminologists Study National Asset Forfeiture Trends
July 29, 2008
If a police officer stops a motorist and discovers cash and narcotics during the stop, the officer may have the authority to confiscate the car as an instrument of crime and the money as probable proceeds of criminal activity.
Asset forfeiture laws allow governments to seize citizens’ private property, including real estate, vehicles and currency, if they are tied to illegal conduct. Although the laws dictating who will receive the proceeds vary from state to state, critics have long contended that these laws lead to “policing for profit.”
UT Dallas criminologists John Worrall and Tom Kovandzic have completed one of the only studies that looks at the application of asset forfeiture laws and whether the laws affect the goals and actions of police departments. The study titled, “Is Policing for Profit? Answers from Asset Forfeiture” is published in the most recent issue of Criminology and Public Policy.
Worrall and Kovandzic, both criminology professors in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences, analyzed 572 police departments around the country to look at the big picture of how asset forfeiture laws might influence policing. Their data came from the Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics survey and the U.S. Justice Department Asset Forfeiture Program.
Worrall and Kovandzic found that money does matter. The prospect of receiving money may drive forfeiture activities. This finding was consistent, regardless of the varying state regulations regarding the division of the proceeds. Even in the most restrictive states, police departments can get back up to 80 percent of the proceeds by working with the federal government in a process called equitable sharing.
These findings are timely as rising gas prices and a changing economy leave police departments faced with growing budget constraints. “As agencies become more desperate, there’s the potential for the situation to worsen. We could see a lot more interest in creative sources of funding,” said Worrall.
Despite the findings that policing for profit does exist and is an increasing occurrence, Worrall and Kovandzic point out that it remains a potentially effective tool for drug enforcement. “Forfeiture revenues are often pumped back into drug task forces. It’s hard to fault law enforcement agencies for using the law to their advantage to wage an expensive war on drugs,” said Worrall.