If you need evidence of how the perverse incentives of asset forfeiture can affect law enforcement, look no further than Arizona, where an ACLU lawsuit is shedding light on the rampant practice of police seizing assets for their own profit, even when the property owners have not been charged with a crime.

The ACLU is accusing police and prosecutors of rigging the system against often-innocent citizens who can't afford to contest the seizures, and using the assets as a way to prop up their budgets without legislative oversight. But you don't have to believe them: just read prosecutors' own training manuals.

At Reason, Jacob Sullum has published an excerpt from the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys Advisory Council's training session on asset forfeiture.

In one slide, they borrow from the DirecTV “when you have cable” meme to explain why law enforcement personnel shouldn’t abuse forfeiture:
When your bosses can't find any money in their budget they get depressed. When they get depressed they tell you to start doing forfeiture cases. When you start doing forfeiture cases you go to a Forfeitures seminar. When you go to a Forfeitures seminar you feel like a winner. When you feel like a winner you go back to your jurisdiction and just start seizing everything in sight. When you just start seizing everything in sight you screw things up and lose everything. When you screw things up and lose everything you ruin forfeitures for all of us. Don't ruin forfeitures for all of us. Get the purpose of this seminar and follow an educated, ethical and professional forfeiture practice.

So make sure you profit off forfeiture, just not so much that it looks suspicious.

This profit-motive approach to forfeiture reflects exactly what the ACLU suit alleges: that the state’s law “results in a perverse, unfair, unconstitutional incentive to seize and forfeit as much money and property as possible as a means to ensure a slush fund available to them with little or no oversight.”

The lawsuit stems from the case of Rhonda Cox, a mother of four whose pickup truck was seized by the state when her son borrowed it and was caught stealing car parts.

Cox maintains that she had no reason to believe her car was being used for criminal activity. But under the state’s forfeiture law, her property, the truck, is treated guilty until proven innocent.

"I allowed my son to use the vehicle as a way to better himself and get on his feet until such time he could purchase his own vehicle. The vehicle was never intended to belong to him,” she stated in a petition for its return. “If the vehicle is seized it is I, the innocent owner who will be out the value of the vehicle and essentially punished."

Cox, like many innocent victims of asset forfeiture, could not afford a lawyer to challenge the seizure on her own.

“The Forfeiture Laws have created a system in which few people like Rhonda can afford to take the risk of defending their property,” the lawsuit reads. “And Defendants have profited, and continue to profit, wildly through this system.”