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Nevada report: Civil asset forfeiture targets low-income minorities

(AP Photo/David Goldman,)

Most property seized in 2016 by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department through civil forfeiture is concentrated in low-income and minority neighborhoods.

A report by the Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI), a conservative think tank, found that the LVMPD seized $1.9 million in asset revenue in 2016. Two-thirds of these were concentrated in 12 ZIP codes that had an average 27 percent poverty rate, compared to 12 percent in the remaining 36 regions.

These ZIP codes also averaged a 42 percent nonwhite population, compared to a 36 percent share in the other regions.

Heat map of Las Vegas civil forfeiture (NPRI screenshot)

94 percent of the 2016 seizures were targeted under alleged drug offenses.

Civil asset forfeiture allows police to seize items they suspect may be related to a crime, without pressing criminal charges. Then the owner must go to court to prove the property is not connected to criminal activity.

Law enforcement says asset forfeiture is vital to disrupting illicit activities such as the drug trade, while bipartisan civil liberty groups have called for reform, claiming that the program provides perverse seizure incentives.

The report found that more than half of seizures were of assets valued less than $1,000, with 43 being less than $100 — and one for 74 cents.

“The most troubling aspect of this practice is that the seizing law enforcement agency directly profits from the forfeitures,” NPRI analyst Daniel Honchariw said in a statement. “And in the vast majority of cases the value of the property seized is less than the likely legal fees needed to contest the seizure, making the whole process nothing more than a form of legalized theft — with the government as the perpetrator.”

The Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm in Virginia, gave Nevada’s civil asset forfeiture policies a D- grade for their “weak protections for innocent owners and a strong financial incentive to seize.”

Honchariw’s study was the first of its kind in Nevada due to new legislation requiring state law enforcement to file seizure and forfeiture reports to the attorney general.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that the LVMPD spent $814,094 money seized in expenses, storage, and legal costs.

The report concluded that civil asset forfeiture should be abolished and replaced with a criminal forfeiture system requiring a conviction, fortified with due process protections. In addition, seized funds should be diverted the from the police to general fund in order to eliminate the “policing for profit incentive.”

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