Law enforcement is not the only group profiting off of civil asset forfeitures — confidential informants get a cut too. According to FBI documents posted by The Intercept, snitches are eligible to “receive compensation of up to 25 percent of the net value of the forfeited property, not to exceed $500,000 per forfeited asset.”
Civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize the assets of an individual suspected of wrongdoing. The practice is controversial as police don’t have to charge an individual with a crime to seize cash, property, and other assets.
While this sounds OK in theory, controversy surrounds the practice as police departments use the program to generate revenue. Guaranteed a cut from seized assets, confidential informants have a profit motive too. And where there’s a profit motive, you’re sure to find some behavior of questionable ethics.
The practice is meant to help law enforcement go after organized crime — especially the illicit drug trade. Unfortunately, there are plenty of stories about law-abiding people getting their assets seized.
One particularly egregious example: College student Charles Clarke had his life savings of $11,000 seized by police, who claimed his bag smelled like cannabis. Though a search yielded no drugs, officers seized the cash anyways.
“I didn’t feel like I knew what was going on… I didn’t commit any crime, and I didn’t understand why I was stopped, so I was confused and scared,” Clarke told Vox in a 2015 interview.
Clarke is one of the lucky ones. Represented pro-bono by Institute for Justice lawyers, he reached a settlement with the U.S. government to get his money back, plus interest. It took more than two-and-a-half years.
There’s no doubt that many people who see their assets seized never see them again. Those that do get their cash or property back must wage years and years of court battles. In the time Clarke did not have access to his funds, he had to go into debt to pay for school and rely on his family for financial support, reports Vox. And while it’s unclear whether a profit motive informed the tip, police say they were acting on a tip from an airport worker.