The Importance of Data in Asset Forfeiture Project

Image courtesy of Public Domain Pictures.

Image courtesy of Public Domain Pictures.

In Kentucky, data reporting on asset forfeiture means gathering information from 120 counties and more than 320 law enforcement agencies. 

Many of those agencies are happy to provide spreadsheets electronically, but some agencies will send you handwritten logs. Others still send bulging  envelopes full of printed-out, and not terribly helpful, spreadsheets.

That means for most stories, no collective database exists. These barriers, though inconvenient, are not incapacitating.

We tackled these issues head-on when we began work on the Pulitzer Center-supported Taken collaborative reporting project. We were determined to answer the questions we had about asset forfeiture — how much was being seized? How was it spent? And did the people subjected to forfeiture deserve it?

To do so, we mined for records in state and local agencies, inspected hundreds of court case files online and in-person, and built our own databases.

Perhaps the most pressing question — did the people who lost their money to asset forfeiture actually deserve it — was the most difficult to answer. We wanted to know if people were actually convicted of the charges that sparked the seizure of their property. For this, no data existed.

Asset forfeitures are often handled in Kentucky courts via a motion filed inside a criminal case. There might be a line on a court docket, but we’re not allowed to scrape it and there’s no way to search for cases including asset forfeiture in the first place. Civil cases without ties to a criminal offense are just as hard to track: lawsuits are filed against the currency, not the person. So, I headed to the courthouse and spent weeks tracking down files, attorneys, and defendants.

In the end, our one-of-a-kind database showed what police records did not — that nearly 1 in 4 people who lost their money to asset forfeiture were never convicted of the crimes that led police to take their cash. I made tons of phone calls and knocked on dozens of doors to find affected people willing to talk. 

Other stories in our reporting gained context through what was missing in the data we received. Each law enforcement agency, whether they have a few officers or a few hundred, is required to report annually to a state agency how much money they seize through asset forfeiture. That data was clean, relatively thorough and quickly provided to us.

But our reporting showed that few agencies regularly file those reports. This makes it virtually impossible to know just how much is seized by law enforcement — and that fact became the central issue in our first asset forfeiture investigation.

The Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet maintains a database of how much each reporting agency seizes each year. While not comprehensive, it provided a roadmap that helped guide the reporting that followed.

From there, we asked each agency to provide records showing how funds obtained through asset forfeiture are spent. Some did, some did not. Still, what we collected helped peel back the curtain on an ingrained, yet rarely seen, element of policing — the taking and spending of people’s money. Agencies bought sports cars, drones, and machine guns. They renovated buildings, sent officers to trainings, and used seized cash to make undercover drug buys.

While asset forfeiture is a practice intended to disrupt drug trafficking, police and prosecutors rarely prove the cash or property is explicitly tied to dealing. Instead, cases are commonly settled with a plea deal. Defense attorneys and advocates claim cash is a driving force in many of those deals — that it’s leverage, helping prosecutors close cases and defendants get softer penalties.

Police and prosecutors denied such, so we examined the court files for nearly 400 cases. In nearly all, the evidence was clear — the deal depended on the forfeit of cash.

It certainly would have been possible to report this story without data, recounting the incidents of police seizure of cash and property But to grasp the scope — data is the only answer. And though the data was not easily obtainable, it existed. It just needed to be gathered, analyzed, and reported.

And now that it has, the public is more informed about how their local law enforcement agencies are operating and more aware of the loopholes in the systems they’re governed by.