Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Asset forfeiture: Insanity

When the government's asset forfeiture scheme was first being pushed back in 2006, I highlighted some of the problems such schemes had caused overseas - including the danger of giving asset forfeiture revenue to police. This creates a perverse incentive for police to seize more assets, which in turn creates incentives for corrupt and criminal behaviour. We can see the effects of such perverse incentives in the US, where people have been framed, tortured, and even killed by police eager to seize their assets. Two examples 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.

In New Jersey, Nicholas L. Bissell, Jr., a local prosecutor known as the Forfeiture King, helped an associate buy land seized in a marijuana case for a small fraction of its market value.

Any sane person would conclude that allowing police to profit directly from asset seizures is insanity. So naturally, that's exactly what the government is doing. From Question Time today:
Sandra Goudie: How are the funds gained from confiscated assets likely to be used?

Hon JUDITH COLLINS: The Government is planning to put the money to good use. Police are working with other agencies on plans to expand alcohol and drug treatment and extra law enforcement initiatives to fight organised crime groups.

(Emphasis added) So, the police can get more money by going out and taking it off suspected "criminals" (I use the quotes there because the standards of proof for seizure are so low that we cannot safely conclude anything about its victims). And its only going to be a matter of time until they steal some innocent person's house.

Still, it could be worse - they could link individual officer's pay and promotion prospects to seizures. OTOH, given that they already do that for traffic tickets, its probably only a matter of time...