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Before John Oliver skewered the practice of civil forfeiture last year, many people didn't know it existed. And many still may not. But for the first time, the dollar value of assets seized by law enforcement has surpassed the amount of property lost to burglaries.
So how does civil forfeiture work and how did it become more costly than home robbery? Here's some insight in to the police practice and the most recent numbers.
Civil forfeiture was created as a tool for law enforcement to make sure that crime really doesn't pay. Under civil forfeiture laws, police can seize personal property, real estate, and financial assets if they believe they are connected to or are themselves ill-gotten gains from criminal activity.
The intent of criminal forfeiture laws is to prevent criminals from profiting from their crimes, but in practice, it could allow police forces to profit from overzealous law enforcement. Police aren't required to charge a person with a crime in order to seize property and the burden is on the owner to prove the property was seized illegally.
As economist Martin Armstrong pointed out on his blog last week, civil forfeitures ballooned to $4.5 billion in 2014, outstripping property losses due to burglary by over half a billion dollars. The FBI reported that just $3.9 billion worth of property had been burgled in the same span.
The problem of civil forfeitures had become so rampant that former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder addressed the issue earlier this year. While federal law enforcement agencies are trying to discourage state and local agencies from using federal adoption to seize assets, there is little incentive for police to end the practice. Absent some court rulings or legislation on the issue, police are likely to remain "self-funding gangs."
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