Unfortunately, local agencies rarely talk about what happens to the cash and other seized assets after each photo op. Nor do they mention the routine traffic stops and petty seizures that more typically produce revenue in states that track the data. When auditors follow the money trail, what they find sometimes makes police and prosecutors look like party animals.
One Georgia sheriff bought a $70,000 muscle car for his daily commute. A New York district attorney dropped $250,000 on luxury travel to Paris and other tourist hotspots. Iowa cops splurged on a $300,000 armored vehicle. A South Carolina police chief transferred $80,000 to his personal bank account. And a Michigan prosecutor pampered the secretaries in his office with flowers and makeup while treating himself to a home security system. Meanwhile, nobody knows what happened to $150,000 in Pennsylvania. The money simply disappeared.
Such outrages come with civil forfeiture, a moneymaking scheme that allows the government to take and permanently keep property without ever charging the owners with a crime. Local agencies in many jurisdictions, including Alaska, then keep the bulk of the windfall for themselves.
Sometimes the funds pay for perks. Other times, the money covers regular expenses, which creates different problems. Agencies that rely on the revenue for mundane purchases gain a perverse incentive to forfeit as much money as possible to stay solvent. Either way, police motives shift from public safety to profit when they can keep the proceeds from their patrols.
Public scrutiny can cause backlash, but Alaska agencies don’t have to worry. They are protected from embarrassment — not by superior ethics, but by lax reporting laws that allow them to hide their civil forfeiture activities in darkness.
Policing for Profit, a nationwide report released Dec. 14 from the nonprofit Institute for Justice, examines civil forfeiture trends nationwide. But information from Alaska is unavailable because the state requires no reporting or independent auditing. Local agencies can keep up to 75% of what they collect through civil forfeiture — more in some cases — and they never have to tell anyone how much they take or what they do with it.
Most other states offer significantly more transparency.
Overall, 18 states and Washington, D.C., require agencies to publish forfeiture data online, making the information easily accessible. Another 14 states voluntarily post updates. Alaska shares nothing, earning F’s in all six transparency categories measured in the report.
The lack of accountability is especially dangerous in a state with otherwise weak forfeiture protections for private property owners. The new report grades states on three legal factors that go beyond the issue of transparency, and Alaska earns a D+ overall—the same grade the state earned in 2015, to go with its F in transparency.
The tight control of information allows police and prosecutors to manipulate public discourse. They claim to use civil forfeiture to take down major criminals, a talking point they reinforce with selective news releases that tout major busts. Yet Institute for Justice research shows that the median cash forfeiture in states that make data available is just $1,276, which would be pocket change for a drug kingpin.
The amounts might be lower or higher in Alaska, but watchdogs can do little more than guess. Either way — no matter how big or small the case — no one should lose property to government agents with clear conflicts of interest and low burdens of proof. The potential for abuse grows worse without transparency.
People in other states can see how police and prosecutors spend their money. Alaska residents never get the opportunity. Lawmakers tell them instead: It’s none of your business.
Daryl James is a writer at the nonprofit Institute for Justice in Arlington, Virginia.