Home Report: Virginia fails at forfeiture transparency

Report: Virginia fails at forfeiture transparency


Forfeiture transparency laws in Virginia are in dire need of reform, as they leave legislators and the public in the dark about how forfeiture is being used and make it impossible to hold law enforcement accountable. So finds a new report released today by the Institute for Justice.

The report, Forfeiture Transparency & Accountability: State-by-State and Federal Report Cards, grades all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. departments of Justice and the Treasury on six basic elements of transparency and accountability in their forfeiture programs.

“Given the vast power forfeiture confers on law enforcement to take and keep property–often without a criminal charge, let alone a conviction–states should hold agencies to high standards of transparency and accountability,” said Angela C. Erickson, senior research analyst at IJ and co-author of the study. “Unfortunately, most states fail at one or more basic elements of forfeiture transparency.”

The report is available online at: http://ij.org/report/forfeiture-transparency-accountability?state=US-VA

Here’s how Virginia performs on the report card:


Tracking Seized Property C
Accounting for Forfeiture Fund Spending C
Statewide Forfeiture Reports A
Accessibility of Forfeiture Records C
Penalties for Failure to File a Report F
Financial Audits of Forfeiture Accounts C

IJ’s detailed online report cards show policymakers precisely where their states fall short so they can easily identify needed transparency improvements, and IJ’s model reporting legislation provides a blueprint for reform.

The report recommends that states adopt common-sense reforms to make their forfeiture programs more transparent. Specifically, IJ recommends that states should:

  • Require that agencies carefully track the property they seize;
  • Monitor spending from forfeiture accounts and subject those accounts to routine audits; and,
  • Compile regular statewide reports detailing forfeiture activity and spending and make those reports easily available online.

“Virginia’s failure to fully account for spending from forfeiture funds is particularly troubling,” said Jennifer McDonald, an IJ research analyst and co-author of the report. “With forfeiture, law enforcement agencies can keep some or all of the proceeds from the property they take. This enables them to generate and spend funds outside the normal appropriations process, which undermines the legislature’s power of the purse. At a bare minimum, agencies should have to publicly report how they spend forfeiture proceeds.”

“By itself, improved transparency cannot fix the fundamental problems with civil forfeiture–namely, the property rights abuses it permits and the temptation it creates to police for profit,” said Darpana Sheth, senior attorney and director of IJ’s nationwide initiative to end forfeiture abuse. “Transparency is no substitute for comprehensive forfeiture reform, but it is still vitally important for bringing forfeiture activity and spending into the light of day.”



Have a guest column, letter to the editor, story idea or a news tip? Email editor Chris Graham at [email protected]. Subscribe to AFP podcasts on Apple PodcastsSpotifyPandora and YouTube.