A bombshell report from the Inspector General (IG) at the Department of Justice has exposed the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for the colossal thieves they are. According to the report, DEA seized more than $4 billion in cash from people since 2007, but $3.2 billion of the seizures were never connected to any criminal charges. That figure does not even include the seizure of cars and electronics.
This thievery is possible through the insidious practice of civil asset forfeiture (CAF), where law enforcement can seize cash and property on the mere suspicion of being involved in criminal activity. Originally developed in the 1980s to go after organized crime, CAF has mushroomed into a source of revenue for cops across the country – from local to state to federal – in what’s become known as Policing for Profit.
When an innocent person’s cash is stolen by DEA, that person must petition to get it back, meaning the burden of proof (and the burden of time and expense) is on the unlucky victim who never did anything wrong in the first place. In fact, “forfeiture proceedings start from the presumption of guilt.”
It’s a clever scheme, and DEA knows it. The IG found that petitions were filed in only 20 percent of DEA cash seizures. As Reason Magazine points out, the IG report highlights just how arbitrary these seizures can be.
“We found that different task force officers made different decisions in similar situations when deciding whether to seize all of the cash discovered,” the Inspector General wrote. “These differences demonstrate how seizure decisions can appear arbitrary, which should be a concern for the Department, both because of potentially improper conduct and because even the appearance of arbitrary decision-making in asset seizure can fuel public perception that law enforcement is not using this authority legitimately, thereby undermining public confidence in law enforcement.”
The case of a man traveling at an airport with $27,000 is a prime example of how DEA can just take the cash on a whim, without even bothering to pretend it has to do with criminal activity.
When a task force officer explained that the U.S. currency in the bag was going to be seized pending further investigation, the passenger asked whether he could keep some of the currency to travel home. The passenger asserted that all of the currency in the bag was his, and the task force officers allowed him to retain $1,000. This seizure resulted in an administrative forfeiture of $27,000 to the U.S. government, and the DEA explained to the OIG that, other than the events surrounding the seizure, there was no subsequent investigative activity or additional law enforcement benefit.
Reason Magazine sums it up perfectly.
If the DEA task force agents thought that man’s cash was connected to drug activity, why allow him to keep some of it? If they weren’t sure, why take it in the first place? The answer, of course, is there is no logical or legal rationale for this sequence of events.
Indeed, most of the DEA’s cash seizures don’t relate to any criminal investigation, and 82 percent of the cases reviewed by the IG were settled without any judicial review. The DEA focuses on airports, train stations and bus terminals, relying on travel records and a host of confidential informants to target people they believe will have lots of cash.
DEA gives itself wide latitude to pin you as a suspect for detainment and search. Woe to those “traveling to or from a known source city for drug trafficking, purchasing a ticket within 24 hours of travel, purchasing a ticket for a long flight with an immediate return, purchasing a one-way ticket, and traveling without checked luggage.”
The IG concludes that DEA is posing great risks to civil liberties by continuing the practices highlighted in its report.
‘When seizure and administrative forfeitures do not ultimately advance an investigation or prosecution, law enforcement creates the appearance, and risks the reality, that it is more interested in seizing and forfeiting cash than advancing an investigation or prosecution.’
The IG states that “risks to civil liberties are particularly significant when seizures that do not advance or relate to an investigation are conducted without a court-issued seizure warrant, the presence of illicit narcotics, or subsequent judicial involvement prior to administrative forfeiture.”
The threat to civil liberties posed by CAF is being recognized more and more, as states continue to abolish the practice by requiring a criminal conviction before cash and assets can be seized. But the federal government is a primary reason why CAF still runs rampant, through the euphemistically named Equitable Sharing Fund where the stolen loot (amounting to $28 billion over the last decade) is shared by federal and state drug task forces.
These findings fundamentally undercut law enforcement’s claim that civil forfeiture is a vital crime-fighting tool. Americans are already outraged at the Justice Department’s aggressive use of civil forfeiture, which has mushroomed into a multibillion dollar program in the last decade. This report only further confirms what we have been saying all along: Forfeiture laws create perverse financial incentives to seize property without judicial oversight and violate due process.
This report is one more illustration that the only solution to resolving these issues is to end the use of civil forfeiture once and for all. – The Institute for Justice