Using asset forfeiture to further disenfranchise marginalised communities

The US justice system is constantly on a quest to find new and exciting ways to keep marginalised communities down, and asset forfeiture represents just one of them — but it’s on the rise, and federal agencies in particular are applying it far too broadly, which makes it a concern that should be addressed more frequently. The practice on its face is troubling, but the way it’s applied is a huge problem, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it has a disproportionate impact of members of communities who are already targeted by the justice system. It’s this, likely, that accounts for the reason there isn’t more outrage about it.

For those unfamiliar with asset forfeiture, it works like this: Law enforcement agencies are empowered to seize resources they think are being used, or could be used, in the commission of a crime. For example, in the investigation of a drug dealing case, an agency might seize vehicles, real estate, and equipment that they think is associated with the crime. While this kind of penalisation isn’t uncommon all over the world, and comes with its own set of problems, what happens next is where the issue really lies. Because, you see, if the target of an investigation doesn’t end up being arrested, charged, or convicted, the agency can still keep the property it has seized. 

Seizing assets to compensate victims may make sense in some settings — for example, a financial institution that defrauded customers should have its assets frozen so a conservator can attempt to restore as much money as possible to customers. Likewise, it’s not unreasonable to seize a murderer’s assets to pay out damages in a civil case. But asset forfeiture is used quite frequently in drug-related cases specifically (though agencies like the FBI like to boast about how it’s used in white collar crime), and I think you can guess where this is going.

People of colour, especially members of the Black and Latino community, tend to be disproportionately targeted when it comes to drug crimes, and it doesn’t stop with racial profiling. Throughout the justice system, racial prejudice is rife, and this is a serious problem on a lot of levels, but in this case, people of colour are being punished before a case is even set in motion, when an agency seizes their property and argues that it’s necessary to prevent its usage in a crime. Even if the target of asset forfeiture never gets processed by law enforcement, their property is still in the hands of the government, and while some appeal options are available, typically the proceeds remain with the government.

Thus, law enforcement agencies are effectively looting communities of colour, which are already at a socioeconomic disadvantage in many settings. Asset forfeiture in this context tends to specifically target low-income communities, which often aren’t in a position to fight back and don’t have the resources to challenge law enforcement agencies on discriminatory practices. As communities face the depletion of their assets, their social opportunities and options narrow — having homes seized means you are homeless, having no vehicle can mean losing a job or being unable to take kids to school, having no money means that your savings and your hope of sending children to college or accessing other benefits for your family is gone. Asset forfeiture has the effect of tearing families apart, especially because if police suspect that one member of a family is involved in crimes (or claims to suspect), they can seize all associated property — even if it doesn’t belong to the person they claim to be investigating.

When a young Black man is profiled in a drug investigation, thus, police don’t just seize his car and freeze his bank accounts. They may also seize the house his parents struggled to buy and hold on to, other family cars and bank accounts, and other resources. The goal, says the government, is to destroy crime at the root, cutting people off from the ability to engage in criminal activities. The effect, though, is a sudden plunge into poverty, combined with the social costs of profiling as well as the real-world ones — should law enforcement arrest and charge their target, for example, only to find that a jury won’t convict, the target still isn’t entitled to have their assets restored, and they have to start from scratch.

Even if it didn’t disproportionately affect communities of colour, asset forfeiture would be a huge problem, because it’s a huge abridgment of civil and human rights (and one that strays into illegal search and seizure, which is a concern written right into the Constitution, and it was put there for a reason). The fact that it does play a prominent role in the steady stripping of resources from communities of colour, though, makes it a huge social issue, since such communities already have a much lower net worth than white communities. When the limited assets you do have are bleeding out of your community, it deprives you of opportunities and also harms your community as a whole — because people can’t invest in community projects, buy into community concerns, and breathe life back into social spaces when they have no resources to do so.

It’s particularly disgusting that these assets are sent to police departments and agencies for them to flaunt on the streets. They claim that these resources help them fight crime more effectively, and that seeing them on display serves as a deterrent for criminals who might not want to risk their own property in the commission of a crime, but really it reflects a transfer of wealth to those in power. One reason law enforcement in the United States has such a substantial arsenal, such unnecessary materiel, is that it’s paying for this equipment from the pockets of communities of colour — Black men are literally buying the bullets that shoot them.

Image: It All Comes Down to Money, Nikola Bagarov, Flickr