Imagine driving along Interstate 40 between Little Rock and Fort Smith with some cash, your laptop, and cell phone in your car. A police officer pulls you over for speeding. But instead of giving you a ticket, the officer takes all your cash, computer, and phone.
This happens every day because of civil asset-forfeiture laws that allow law enforcement officials to seize millions of dollars' worth of citizen property that they suspect is involved in criminal activity. Arkansas officers only need to believe there is a preponderance of evidence (roughly, a 51 percent probability) that a person's property is complicit in a crime, a much lower standard of proof than criminal cases. And even if they never charge you with a crime, you may never see your property again.
Arkansas law broadly states that seized property and money can be spent for law enforcement and prosecutorial purposes. Since there are few rules and little oversight on forfeiture spending, law enforcement officials have the incentive to seize property and cash to finance their spending. Using data from Freedom of Information Act requests, my research shows that Arkansas counties along the interstate use forfeiture the most, and counties with higher percentages of Hispanics also report higher amounts of forfeiture.
Publicly available legislative audits indicate that over $81.6 million in cash and property was seized by Arkansas law enforcement officers between 1999 and 2014. The property seized regularly includes cars, guns, and electronics. In short, anything of value is justified for seizure.
In February 2016, an Xbox, a guitar, and a banjo were seized from a Sebastian County resident. In August 2015, records indicate two TVs, a tablet, a Blu-ray player, three purses, one handbag, and one wallet were seized from a citizen in Drew County. None of these items were returned to their owners, even though neither of the property owners was charged with a crime.
And what happens to the seized property? Under current state laws, Arkansas law enforcement agencies can sell the property and keep the profits for use at their own discretion. For example, in 2015 Lonoke County seized $439,734. This figure makes up nearly a quarter of its annual budget. Forfeiture money is a valuable source of revenue for law enforcement agencies.
If citizens want to contest forfeiture, they must engage in a lengthy and costly battle with the government to get their property back. In many cases, the cost of the legal battle is not worth the initial value of the seized property. In one case, $810 in cash was seized from a woman in Arkansas in October 2015. She had to file letters with the prosecuting attorney, get signatory witnesses, and provide proof that the cash was not drug money. Her property was returned to her almost one year later, but many others are not so lucky, nor determined. Although law enforcement officials conduct thousands of seizures each year, most seizures in Arkansas remain uncontested.
To obtain more detailed data, I submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to every county and judicial district in the state. My statistical analysis shows that counties with more Hispanic residents are subject to more civil asset forfeiture, even after controlling for poverty rates and proximity to an interstate highway. There appears to be a disproportionate impact on ethnic minorities under current forfeiture law.
States across the country are reforming their forfeiture laws to remove the incentive for law enforcement officials to seize property and cash. Missouri now requires a criminal conviction before a forfeiture can occur. New Mexico abolished civil asset forfeiture altogether. At present, Arkansas has some of the worst forfeiture laws in the country, earning a D minus grade from the Institute for Justice.
Arkansas should reform its forfeiture laws to raise the standard of proof for forfeiture to "clear and convincing" evidence. Many states already use this standard or even the higher "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard. Even better, the state should require a criminal conviction before property is forfeited.
The state should also require that all agencies make their forfeiture practices completely transparent so the public can grasp just how much profit Arkansas law enforcement agents reap at the expense of ordinary Arkansas citizens.
Maleka Momand is a student research fellow with the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics at the University of Central Arkansas.
Editorial on 11/10/2016
Print Headline: At our expense