Asset Forfeiture and Perverse Incentives

A Philadelphia couple and two other plaintiffs are suing the district attorney, the police department, and their city government for seizing their homes. Their plight is an instructive — and frightening — example of how bad incentives in law enforcement can wreak havoc on innocent people.

On May 8, Christos Sourovelis took his son to court-appointed rehab following his arrest in March for selling a mere $40 in drugs outside his parents’ home. It was during this trip that Christos received a call from Markela, his wife, stating that the police had returned to their house — with the intent to seize it. Already reeling from taking his son to rehab, he now listened helplessly as his panicked wife tried to keep police from removing her from their home. Against the State: An ... Rockwell Jr., Llewelly... Best Price: $5.02 Buy New $5.52 (as of 11:35 EST - Details)

What had Christos and Markela done? They had caught the attention of Philadelphia’s Public Nuisance Task Force, a unit that allows city prosecutors to seize homes, cars, cash, and other property they claim are involved in drug or alcohol-related crimes.

The task force in Philadelphia illustrates critical problems with the asset forfeiture programs throughout the country. Yet it’s not surprising that asset seizures have increased significantly over the past several decades. The main reason? A significant portion of the seized assets have gone directly to the confiscating agency’s bottom line.

In Philadelphia, for example, authorities have seized more than $64 million in assets over a ten-year period. Twenty-five million went directly to salaries. Police officers in Hunt Country, Texas, have received bonuses topping $26,000 a year due to asset forfeiture.

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