The Journal Gazette
Friday, December 18, 2020 1:00 am


The civil thing to do

Asset forfeiture remains inherently inequitable

Tyson Timbs is one of the lucky ones.

In April, a Grant County judge ordered Timbs' SUV returned. The $35,000 Land Rover he bought with an inheritance was seized by police when he was accused in 2013 of selling about $500 worth of heroin.

Legal wrangling over the vehicle lasted nearly a decade and took Timbs and his lawyers from courtrooms in northeast Indiana to the U.S. Supreme Court and back again. The SUV was returned after civil forfeiture laws were challenged and the high court ruled the Constitution's ban on excessive fines extends to the states.

It's one of the few positives in a system that allows police to take money and property from people facing criminal charges. Indiana's civil forfeiture laws are among the worst in the country, according to a new report, and state lawmakers should take note. 

The state earned a D for its laws in a study this week from the Institute for Justice, the libertarian public interest law firm that represented Timbs.

Researchers found nearly $69 billion has been forfeited in the U.S. since 2000. That's not comprehensive because not all states provided data; report authors say the figure “drastically undercounts property taken from people through forfeiture.”

Indiana prosecutors and police netted more than $14 million from forfeiture in just three years, 2016 to 2019, according to the report.

“Most laws – including Indiana's – still stack the deck against property owners and give law enforcement perverse financial incentives to pursue property over justice,” Lisa Knepper, co-author and Institute for Justice senior director of strategic research, said in a statement.

State and federal law allows police to seize property if they suspect it is related to criminal activity, and they don't need to prove a crime has been committed. In Indiana, some of the money seized goes to schools through a state funding mechanism, but not enough.

The report, “Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture,” says “police, prosecutors and government-contracted contingency-fee lawyers” have kept up to 93% of proceeds since 2018.

“It's happening everywhere,” co-author Jennifer McDonald, Institute for Justice senior research analyst, said in an interview Thursday.

Law enforcement agencies can seize property using state and federal procedures. Indiana's method was tightened in recent years and requires that police prove items were used in a drug crime or “criminal enterprise.”

The federal method allows agencies to take property, turn it over to the government and get back about 80% of the proceeds, researchers reported. That happens a lot in Indiana, and the state ranks high among states “for its disproportionate use of the federal program.”

In Fort Wayne, police this year seized nearly $219,000. About $141,500 came through federal asset seizures. A vehicle seizure is pending.

New Mexico eliminated civil forfeiture in 2015 and earned the report's only A rating.

McDonald said civil forfeiture does little to combat big-time criminals, a point Timbs made in challenging the laws.

Data from 21 states in the report show half of all currency forfeitures are worth less than $1,300.

That's often far less than it would cost to hire a lawyer to fight in court to get the money back.

“A lot of people end up walking away,” McDonald said. “They never get their day in court.”

Capt. Kevin Hunter of the Fort Wayne Police Department said money from forfeitures can be sent to the city's coffers or used to pay for things such as training and vehicles.

Those items are surely needed and helpful, but they should be secured through state and local funding, not civil forfeiture. 

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