Is civil forfeiture a boon for law enforcement?

Daniel Honchariw

Senate Bill 358, currently under debate in the Nevada legislature, proposes to reform the law-enforcement practice of civil asset forfeiture.

Civil asset forfeiture is controversial, in part, because of concerns over due process. SB 358 attempts to address this concern by requiring a conviction prior to forfeiture proceedings — something not required under current law.

But civil asset forfeiture is also controversial for another important reason: assets confiscated directly enrich the agency invoking asset forfeiture.

In other words, when cash or other assets are seized by an agency, they are used to bolster that agency’s operating budget — thereby creating a financial incentive for further use of asset forfeiture.

SB358 aims to eliminate this incentive for potential abuse by diverting forfeited assets to educational purposes rather than the seizing agency.

However, the bill’s main opponents — namely, law enforcement — argue that there is no current financial incentive to misuse asset forfeiture, as the proceeds gained by such practices are simply too small.

But are they really?

Fortunately, per Senate Bill 138 of the 2015 legislative session, law-enforcement agencies are now required to document each forfeiture action taken on an annual basis. From this, the state Attorney-General’s office compiles a comprehensive report.

The aim of such reporting requirements is to shine light on the frequency and breadth of this practice in Nevada — and to document cases where forfeiture powers may have been abused.

Below is the comprehensive list of law-enforcement agencies which were enriched through forfeiture proceeds during fiscal year 2016, ordered most to least:

So — no incentive, is the argument?

Over $3.2 million, and opponents’ reluctance to forego these proceeds in the future, suggests otherwise.

(For the AG’s full report, click here.)

Update: Despite being declared eligible for exemption on April 4, SB358 died with April 14’s deadline after the committee refused to act.


Daniel Honchariw, MPA, is a policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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