Thanks to investigative reporting by AFP and other alternative media sources, increasing numbers of Americans are aware of “civil asset forfeiture,” a surprisingly legal strategy being utilized to line the pockets of law enforcement agencies both large and small. However, few realize the scope of this theft. Now, a report from the DOJ’s Inspector General reveals not only how much is being taken by just one agency, the DEA, but how few people who’ve had their cash seized are even charged with a crime – and only a tiny minority ever recover their stolen property.
By Sophia Meyer
Since 2007, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has grabbed $3.2 billion in cash from individuals who were never charged with a crime, according to a March report from the Department of Justice’s Inspector General (IG).
Of the DEA’s total $4 billion in cash seizures over the last decade, this $3.2 billion, accounting for 81%, were seized administratively—meaning no charges, civil or criminal, were ever brought against the owners of the cash, and no judicial review of the action ever occurred.
Further, that $4 billion figure includes cash only—it does not take into account the value of other assets seized by the DEA, such as homes, cars, clothing, and electronics. Nor does the total take into consideration the cash and property seized by other agencies throughout the U.S., at every level from municipal to county to state to federal.
In 2014 alone, reports The Washington Post, “authorities seized $5 billion in cash and property from people—greater than the value of all documented losses to burglary that year” and added to the DOJ’s Asset Forfeiture Fund, which now stands at $28 billion.
These seizures are legal under the practice of civil asset forfeiture, in which agencies are authorized to seize cash, property, and contraband from those suspected of crime even without a criminal conviction. It further allows departments to keep what is seized unless individuals bring a successful challenge in court.
The IG report, after examining 100 instances of cash seizures conducted “without a court-issued warrant and without the presence of narcotics, the latter of which would provide strong evidence of related criminal behavior,” found the DOJ “does not collect or evaluate the data necessary to know whether its seizures and forfeitures are effective, or the extent to which seizures present potential risks to civil liberties.”
In most of the seizures reviewed, DEA officials initially became involved if individuals met certain criteria, including “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 Post also reports “some of the encounters were based on tips from confidential sources working in the travel industry, a number of whom have received large sums of money in exchange for their cooperation.”
Because fewer than half of the cases the IG reviewed were related to a criminal investigation or led to arrest or prosecution, the report concludes that “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.”
Although law enforcement agencies insist civil asset forfeiture is essential and valuable in fighting crime, critics question whether the real value is simply in the practice’s profit potential and padding departmental budgets.
Originally from the Midwest, Sophia Meyer is a freelance writer and editor and avid gardener now living on Florida’s Treasure Coast.