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Civil Asset Forfeiture in Arkansas

By Maleka Momand

Would you believe me if I told you a police officer could pull you over on the highway, take your cash, phone, and other valuables, and keep them without charging you for a crime? To most people, this scenario sounds like highway robbery, but it is a daily occurrence in Arkansas. Civil asset forfeiture is a legal practice that seems to violate common sense – police can seize anyone’s property under the mere suspicion that it is connected to a crime.

Civil asset forfeiture has roots in British common law but became increasingly popular in the United States during the War on Drugs in an attempt to take profit out of crime. Today, it is a profitable tool at all levels of government – and Arkansas is no exception. State and local law enforcement officials seize millions of dollars worth of cash and property every year, and Arkansas laws allow police to keep forfeiture proceeds for their own use. This creates a dangerous incentive for officers to take advantage of forfeiture at the expense of the innocent.

To what degree are civil asset forfeiture laws a tool used (and abused) in Arkansas?  It turns out no group in Arkansas has examined that question. Because state and local records on forfeiture actions are difficult to get, capturing the true extent of forfeiture use in Arkansas nearly impossible. Nonetheless, ACRE Affiliated Research Analyst Maleka Momand collected significant data through Freedom of Information Act requests from local and state agencies. The findings are eye-opening.

Between 2010 and 2015, Arkansas law enforcement officials seized over $44 million in currency alone, a figure that does not account for the value of automobiles, jewelry, weapons and other items eligible for seizure under Arkansas law. For a full breakdown of seizures by year, please download our one-page summary of the findings.

After calculating the average amount of currency per person seized by each Arkansas county, a clear trend emerged: more seizures occur along Interstate 40. It is not out-of-state drug traffickers that are being impacted the most by seizure – it’s Arkansas residents. Seizure records indicate that between 2010 and 2015, recorded seizures from out-of-state property owners were never higher than 14%. Rather than seizing cash and property from drug traffickers traveling through Arkansas on I-40, law enforcement officials are seizing property from state residents the most.

In addition to disproportionately impacting Arkansas residents, ACRE data analysis finds a significant relationship between currency seizure amounts and county Hispanic populations. For each percent increase in a county’s Hispanic population, there is a corresponding $0.10 increase in average currency seizures per person.

Furthermore, no publicly available data exists to show how often seizures are justified. The Arkansas Asset Seizure Tracking System does not indicate whether or not the property owner was charged with or convicted of a crime, if the owner challenged the seizure in court, or if the property was ever returned. Despite millions of dollars at stake, it’s unclear if forfeiture is fulfilling its intended purposes of reducing crimes or preventing criminals from collecting a profit from crime.

A growing number of states, including neighboring Mississippi, are reforming their forfeiture laws to better protect property owners and remove the incentive for law enforcement officials to seize without just cause. In the 2017 session, Arkansas legislators rejected a civil asset forfeiture reform bill that would have strengthened the rights and due process protections for property owners. Given the amount of money and property seized from Arkansas residents, and the impact forfeiture has on minority populations, Arkansas’ forfeiture laws deserve a closer look. Limited transparency and the low burden of proof required to seize private property create a perverse incentive for law enforcement agencies to abuse civil asset forfeiture laws. Arkansans deserve to know how state law enforcement officials use forfeiture—and how often its use is justified.

Download Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Civil Asset Forfeiture in Arkansas for the full report.

Maleka Momand is an ACRE Affiliated Research Analyst. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science with a minor in Honors Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Central Arkansas. She completed the research for this report as a Research Fellow with the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics under the supervision of Dr. Jeremy Horpedahl. Momand has had multiple op-eds published on this issue and her research has been cited by various news sources. She is currently the President of Argive, a regulatory research nonprofit in Silicon Valley.