Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Asset forfeiture: perverse incentives

According to the latest issues paper on the Police Act Review, the government is floating the idea of funnelling the fruits of asset forfeiture directly into the police budget:

A suggestion sometimes heard is for Police to receive a direct payback for work to break down organised crime networks and seize ill-gotten criminal gains. This model of a direct link between the success of anti-crime policing efforts and resources made available to enforcement agencies is most familiar from the United States of America, where inventive schemes exist which allow assets confiscated from convicted offenders to be made available to the agency responsible for bringing the offenders to justice. High profile cases involving anti-drug work, where motor vehicles, boats, etc., have been re-directed to law enforcement agencies, are occasionally cited as evidence of the value of such schemes.

While the symbolic value of such American initiatives can be acknowledged, legitimate concerns may be expressed about the ability for such schemes to create perverse incentives which could potentially skew some police actions.

That's one way of putting it. Here's another, from Eric Schlosser's Reefer Madness:

In California, thirty-one state and federal agents raided Donald P. Scott's 200-acre ranch on the pretext that marijuana was growing there. Scott was inadvertently killed by a deputy sheriff. No evidence of marijuana cultivation was discovered, and a subsequent investigation by the Ventura County's District Attorney's Office found that the drug agents had been motivated partly by a desire to seize the $5 million ranch. They had obtained an appraisal of the property weeks before the raid.

This should be warning enough that allowing the police to benefit directly from asset forfeiture is a bad idea. It encourages stitch-ups and corrupts the justice system, turning it from a question of evidence and guilt or innocence to one of how much the police can take. Even tied funding runs the risk of encouraging such corruption, as it will undoubtedly lead to management setting targets for seizures, which will in turn create pressure on staff to meet them, exactly as high-level budget targets for traffic offences creates pressure to issue speeding tickets. And if we end up with performance bonuses depending in part on the level of asset seizures, then we will create a situation where police officers benefit personally from pursuing forfeitures - an invitation to outright abuse and corruption.

(More posts on asset forfeiture can be found here).


And it allows a cop to say to a smug druggler, for instance: "we'll not prosecute and you'll stay out of jail, providing you let us confiscate your yacht".

Which sounds to me like a payoff.

Posted by Rich : 11/21/2006 03:52:00 PM