In 1984, Congress passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act (“CCCA”). This law was passed at a time when crime rates, particularly drug-related crimes, were rising nationally. The CCCA provided, in part, that law enforcement agencies could seize the overwhelming majority of assets of individuals suspected of criminal activity. In fact, the CCCA allowed law enforcement to seize up to three times what they could seize from criminal suspects under then-existing state laws. In 2014, the last year for which data is available, local police agencies seized about $4.5 billion in assets. The majority of these assets were turned over to the federal government; however, the relatively small portion given back to local police departments subsidized about 20% of their budgets. The CCCA also gave police departments something of a windfall that paid for equipment and the establishment of narcotics task forces.
It was later found that over the decade following its passage, the CCCA resulted in a decline in crime rates of about 17% in jurisdictions where it was applied. Obviously, this was something that relatively few people would fault, particularly in light of the fact that the law grew from a perception that crime rates were out of control. However, new information concerning the long-term effects of the CCCA – particularly the manner in which it influences law enforcement priorities – recently became available. This material should be of interest to anyone who seriously tracks trends in law enforcement activities.
According to a recent study prepared by professors at Florida State University (“FSU”), the asset forfeiture system established by the CCCA has had unintended consequences over time. First, it has apparently caused law enforcement to heavily target drug-related offenses. It has also apparently motivated local police to focus their efforts in poorer urban areas where it is easier to make drug-related arrests that frequently result in the seizure of assets. In some instances, the assets seized may amount only to a few hundred dollars. It can, however, add up very quickly if enough people are arrested.
Indeed, it is generally acknowledged that since the passage of the CCCA, drug-related arrests have risen substantially. However, the FSU study noted that while drug arrests rose by 37% during the eight-year period following passage of the law, there was no substantial increase in arrests for other types of violent and non-violent crime.
It is very difficult for a few days, perhaps a week, to pass without seeing a news item about drug-related crime. Most people hear this and applaud, but important facts get lost in what appears to be good news. A law enforcement agency, like any organization, sets priorities, goals and objectives. To what extent are law enforcement objectives driven by a profit motive, as opposed to real societal needs? Has law enforcement chosen to heavily target drug crimes because there is a real community need to do so, or because that’s where the money is?
In any criminal case where there is a seizure of assets, defense counsel will have to address the issue of asset forfeiture. Here in New Jersey, it is typically resolved with a consent order that results in the unquestioned surrender of the assets to the State, or the commencement of a forfeiture action that almost always ends with the entry of a default and default judgment. However, and given the FSU study, we need to look more seriously at how asset forfeiture affects the functioning of, and choices made, in the criminal justice system. Are police practices driven by real community needs, or by a profit motive?
James S. Friedman, Esq., is a criminal defense attorney based in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Mr. Friedman represents criminal defendants, including those accused of narcotics offenses, in all federal and state courts in New Jersey and New York City.