Recent years have brought public scrutiny on a controversial law enforcement practice known as civil asset forfeiture, which lets police seize and keep cash and property from people who are never convicted — and in many cases, even charged — with wrongdoing. But despite a growing public outcry spurred in part by news investigations and congressional hearings, a new report Tuesday from the Institute for Justice, a non-profit civil liberties law firm, finds that the past decade has seen a “meteoric, exponential increase” in the use of the practice.
The government does not measure the number of times per year that assets are seized. But one common measure of the practice is the amount of money in the asset forfeiture funds of the Department of Justice and the U.S. Treasury, the two agencies that typically perform forfeitures at the federal level. In 2008,there were less than $1.5 billion in the combined asset forfeiture funds of the Justice Department and the U.S. Treasury, according to the report. But by 2014, that number had tripled, to roughly $4.5 billion.
In an e-mail, a Justice Department spokesman pointed out that big cases, like the $1.7 billion Bernie Madoff judgment and a $1.2 billion case associated with Toyota, have led to large deposits to forfeiture funds in a single year. It’s not possible to determine precisely how much of these deposits have been subsequently released to victims.