War on Drugs

Drug Enforcement Administration Refuses to Pay Man for Ruining His Truck During an Undercover Drug Sting About Which He Wasn't Told


Readers familiar with Reason know a drug war horror story or two, but what happened to Craig Patty's property and his peace of mind, thanks to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), is still rather shocking. The Houston Chronicle has the story which confirms the DEA's ability to steal from citizens and (so far in this case) get away with it.

Last October, Patty, the owner of a trucking company in Texas, hired Lawrence Chapa as a driver. By November 21:

Chapa was shot dead in front of more than a dozen law enforcement officers—all of them taken by surprise by hijackers trying to steal the red Kenworth T600 truck and its load of pot.

In the confusion of the attack in northwest Harris County, compounded by officers in the operation not all knowing each other, a Houston policeman shot and wounded a Harris County sheriff's deputy.

Not to mention, Patty's truck was in ruins. It turned out Chapa wasn't answering to Patty, but to the DEA as an undercover marijuana smuggler looking to bust cartels. In the few short weeks that Chapa worked for the trucking company, he often drove where he wasn't supposed to, once taking a 1,000 mile detour.

The tragedy of a man's death, particularly in service of a nasty government organization (to say nothing of the worse cartels) is one thing, but it seems pretty clear that if the DEA was using Patty's employee, and more importantly, his property, without the man's knowledge, they should pay for the estimated $133,532 in damages and lost wages. Patty is asking the DEA for that amount, plus an addition $1.3 million because he says his family now fears for their lives due to the potential for the brush with cartels meaning that dangerous men now know the name of Patty's truck company. 

So, what's the difference between this and asset forfeiture, a disturbing law enforcement trend that feeds off of and feeds into the continued drug war by allowing police to keep the cars, money, and property that they seize in drug crimes? (Radley Balko has a good introduction to the practice here. Suffice to say, it mostly means that property can be "guilty" in a crime and then seized…Except that government officials can take that property before a conviction or even an arrest. And in order to get it back, it's often very costly for the plaintiff. It sure seems like this practice was pioneered by people with either a terrific or a very shoddy understanding of incentives.)

Well, as Mike Riggs reported earlier today, asset forfeiture has increased in dramatically in the last several years under Obama's Department of Justice. Check it out, the numbers are deeply disturbing.

Basically, if they can do that, why not ruin a truck with bullet holes and blood and guts and then refuse to pay damages? The DEA won't confirm that Chapa was an undercover, but the Chronicle claims that documents, prosecutor comments, and off the record quotes confirm this to be the case.

Patty's truck was insured, but the company won't pay because the truck was used in a law enforcement operation. Meanwhile, Patty's lawyer advised him to sue if the DEA doesn't cough up. But eight months have gone by and, wonders Patty:

"How am I — a small businessman, father of three, American Joe from Texas — supposed to make a claim against a federal agency that has conveniently shrouded itself behind a red, white and blue cloak of confidentiality and secrecy?"

Reason on the DEA and more on asset forfeture