The Portland forfeiture program's origins lie in Blumenauer's days in the Oregon State Legislature. Blumenauer was concerned with the difference in treatment of drunk drivers and other less serious offenders. "A hunter could kill a deer out of season, and he would lose his rig, his guns, and other equipment and would spend significant time in jail, while the drunk driver who killed a little girl a block from my house could be out of jail and driving again in a week," Blumenauer commented. Blumenauer was struck by the logic of depriving offenders of the instrument of their offense. While recalcitrant drunk drivers could disregard license suspensions and insurance requirements, they could not pose a threat to highway safety without their automobiles. Blumenauer attempted to pass a statewide vehicle forfeiture bill in the legislature, but was stymied by bank lien holders, civil libertarians, and indifference. |
Later, as a Portland city councilman, Blumenauer had more success. Opposition was softened by involving concerned parties in the process and drafting an ordinance that met their concerns. Blumenauer also simply had fewer people to convince on the City Council. Portland's forfeiture ordinance was passed by a unanimous vote and went into effect in 1989. The Portland ordinance subjected to forfeiture vehicles of offenders arrested for driving with a license suspended as a result of driving while intoxicated, or those arrested as habitual offenders who have committed three or more serious traffic offenses, at least one of which was driving while intoxicated. Concerns of banking interests and civil libertarians were addressed through provisions allowing the return of vehicles to lien holders or other innocent owners not implicated in the offense. According to Blumenauer, the program was an immediate political success. "It was simple, direct, and cost effective, and the logical linkage between the sanction and the offense resonated with the public," he recalled.
Despite such claims, others were more skeptical about the untried program. No other jurisdiction appeared to have operated a similar program, and no data existed concerning the effectiveness of such a program in keeping drunk drivers off the streets. Noting that many of the vehicles seized were inexpensive and uninsured "junkers," some, including Reed political science professor Stefan Kapsch, speculated that many offenders might simply purchase other "disposable" vehicles, fail to register or insure them, and continue driving.
Reed policy workshop tests program
Professor Kapsch and a group of his students set out to empirically test the putative success of the program in research funded by the Rose E. Tucker Charitable Trust. A literature review discovered many anecdotal claims about the effectiveness of forfeiture in depriving offenders of the instrumentality of their offenses, but no hard data actually linking forfeiture to reductions in recidivism. The Reed team surveyed households of documented offenders and a randomly selected control group in the spring of 1992, and the data were analyzed for statistically significant variations.
The results were inconclusive, and significant doubts emerged about the validity of the data. Responses to control questions, such as whether a member of the household had been arrested for drunk driving, exhibited minimal or insignificant variation between the target group and the control group. While the survey results posed interesting methodological questions, they provided no answers for the question at issue: does forfeiture have an effect on driving behavior?
My involvement with the forfeiture project began in the fall of 1994. It was readily apparent to both Professor Kapsch and me that no amount of analysis of the original survey results could yield definitive results or overcome the methodological qualms, and I looked for other sources of data. Working from the Portland Police data system's main arrest files, the Asset Forfeiture Unit's forfeiture database, and handwritten patrol records from the traffic division, I constructed a unified data file on nearly 17,000 perpetrators that included information on virtually all factors with theoretical relevance to re-offense. With the guidance of mathematics professor Albyn Jones, I learned to use and interpret the sophisticated Cox Proportional Hazards statistical analysis model to test the independent effects of seizure and forfeiture on expected time from an initial offense to subsequent re-arrest.
The results of the analysis were as unequivocal as they were remarkable. To a near-statistical certainty, all other significant factors being equal, having a vehicle seized correlated with a nearly doubled expected time to re-arrest. In other words, offenders whose vehicles were seized re-offended only half as often as those whose vehicles were not seized.