Asset Forfeiture

The Washington Post Offers Another Wake-Up Call on Aggressive Police Asset Seizures

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"Fly, my pretties! Fly!"
Credit: Telstar Logistics / photo on flickr

How law enforcement agencies abuse asset forfeiture laws to bankroll their various budgets to the tune of billions is the focus of a big three-part investigation at The Washington Post. Two parts have been published already; the third part will be published Tuesday.

The horrifying basics are probably already likely known to regular Reason readers. Law enforcement agencies are seizing millions in cash from drivers without any proof these citizens have engaged in illegal behavior, and these people have an uphill battle to get their money back. The Post notes that only one-sixth of asset forfeitures are even challenged, but when they are challenged, the government ends up agreeing to return the money 41 percent of the time.

What's new for those of us who have been following asset forfeiture abuse for years? The Washington Post delves into a private for-profit firm named Desert Snow, which trains officers to detect suspicious behavior in people they've stopped in order to justify searches (such notable things as being nervous and having litter in the vehicle) and encouraging officers to casually ask drivers to allow for searches after the stop is "officially" over and the driver cited (or not) for unrelated violations. The firm also created an information network called Black Asphalt that law enforcement officers used to privately share reports and information between agencies online:

Operating in collaboration with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other federal entities, Black Asphalt members exchanged tens of thousands of reports about American motorists, many of whom had not been charged with any crimes, according to a company official and hundreds of internal documents obtained by The Post. For years, it received no oversight by government, even though its reports contained law enforcement sensitive information about traffic stops and seizures, along with hunches and personal data about drivers, including Social Security numbers and identifying tattoos.

Black Asphalt also has served as a social hub for a new brand of highway interdictors, a group that one Desert Snow official has called "a brotherhood." Among other things, the site hosts an annual competition to honor police who seize the most contraband and cash on the highways. As part of the contest, Desert Snow encouraged state and local patrol officers to post seizure data along with photos of themselves with stacks of currency and drugs. Some of the photos appear in a rousing hard-rock video that the Guthrie, Okla.-based Desert Snow uses to promote its training courses.

Annual winners receive Desert Snow's top honorific: Royal Knight. The next Royal Knight will be named at a national conference hosted in Virginia Beach next year in collaboration with Virginia State Police.

I would embed the video referenced above but it appears to have been removed from YouTube by the user. Imagine that.

And despite the frequent defenses by law enforcement that asset forfeiture isn't about snagging money for themselves but taking tools away from the evil drug lords, there's plenty of evidence that they know otherwise:

Desert Snow officials in interviews disclaimed the practice of targeting drivers for money, sometimes known as "policing for profit." They said that seizing cash is a proven tool for hurting drug and crime organizations.

But privately, they promote a book that extols the quest for cash. Ron Hain, a marketing official with Desert Snow and a full-time deputy sheriff in Kane County, Ill., has urged police to use cash seizures to bolster municipal coffers. "In Roads: A Working Solution to America's War on Drugs," a book Hain self-published under the pen name Charles Haines in 2011, states that departments can "pull in expendable cash hand over fist."

Read The Washington Post's first two stories here and here. And consult Reason's lengthy history of writing on asset forfeiture abuse here.

Elsewhere, the Institute for Justice, which is suing to stop terrible asset forfeiture practices in Philadelphia, has released a report today that purports to show via experimentation that just the ability to seize people's money and assets creates the necessary incentives to do so even when it's not justified. In other words, it's not "bad apples," it's "bad laws." They used a video game simulation and got some interesting results. Read their report here (pdf).

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40 responses to “The Washington Post Offers Another Wake-Up Call on Aggressive Police Asset Seizures

  1. Huh, so the rantings of a bunch of right-wing teabaggers on Reason a renow the mainstream stylings of the Washington Post. Maybe Krugman has a point. Libertarians are a-takin’ over.

    1. The first time that all 23 of us in the country are off work on the same day, look out!

    2. Ah, another progressive old fart wants us to get off his lawn.

  2. How law enforcement agencies abuse asset forfeiture laws to bankroll their various budgets to the tune of billions is the focus of a big three-part investigation at The Washington Post. Two parts have been published already; the third part will be published Tuesday.

    And.nothing.else.happened.

  3. Annual winners receive Desert Snow’s top honorific: Royal Knight.

    Feudal bullies acting on the king’s behalf – how fitting.

    1. That reminds me that I forgot to mention the reference to “Robin Hood,” where the police think THEY are Robin Hood.

      1. Really? The Sheriff’s men?

      2. Well, in the Sacred Name of Government Almighty Itself, who in the heck do YOU think that our Holy Warriors are, if not Robin’ ‘Hood? They are, after all, Robbin’ the whole ‘Hood of all of our valuables! Remember? Profit and money is EVIL, except if it is moved around by Government Almighty! So they are just relieving us of our evils? We should be thanking them all profusely?

  4. On Desert Snow, I don’t think they should be classified as a private company at all. Not when their entire existence depends on not only government money, but continued government aggression.

  5. Desert Snow officials in interviews disclaimed the practice of targeting drivers for money, sometimes known as “policing for profit.” They said that seizing cash is a proven tool for hurting drug and crime organizations.

    Of course it can. But that doesn’t mean that it also isn’t a tool to steal from innocent people. It can and apparently is both.

    1. The presumption Desert Snow makes, of course, is that anyone carrying enough cash to be seized is part of a drug organization.

      Because innocent people know large amounts of cash can be seized so to a one, they carry travelers cheques, or use the Discover Card(tm).

      1. With the rise of pre-paid debit cards, I would be very surprised that any but the dumbest criminal carries large amounts of cash. For every “criminal” these programs take money from, there are probably two or three innocent people. But since the point is to steal, that doesn’t matter.

        1. Don’t people normally take pretty large amounts of cash to some events, like a car or motorcycle swap meet? Sporting event?

          How silly of them.

    2. Where’s Robin Hood when you need him?

  6. So now highway robbery is legal and cash is illegal? What a great freest in the entire world country we live in.

    I mean get real here for a minute, in some 3rd world countries, the cops might hold you up until you volunteer to give them some of your cash, but actually just robbing you of it is probably only common in the USA. Freedom!

    1. They take overtly criminal practices, gussy them up as institutional protocol and next thing you know it’s a “legitimate tool” for “law enforcement” to “protect” our freedoms. The quotation keys on my keyboard are getting worn out from all these statist euphemisms.

  7. But privately, they promote a book that extols the quest for cash. Ron Hain, a marketing official with Desert Snow and a full-time deputy sheriff in Kane County, Ill., has urged police to use cash seizures to bolster municipal coffers. “In Roads: A Working Solution to America’s War on Drugs,” a book Hain self-published under the pen name Charles Haines in 2011, states that departments can “pull in expendable cash hand over fist.”

    Hurrah, we made the (bad) news again. “Land of Lincoln” FTW!

    1. So, wait, I’m not the only one in Illinois?

      Thank fucking god.

  8. My progressive acquaintances, despite living in The Washington Post’s market, are stonily silent on this issue. They aren’t even bothering to lie to pin it on someone other than the actual offenders.

  9. suspicious behavior […] (such notable things as being nervous and having litter in the vehicle

    If litter in the car is suspicious, every woman I know is going to get searched.

    1. With the exception of a rental car, I’ve never seen a vehicle that didn’t have some litter.

      1. Is there someone here who lost a friend named “John?” I’m feeling the name John coming from someone in the audience. Great! The lady over there in the pink blouse. Now was John taken suddenly, tragically? Yes, and before you had time to say your goodbyes? Yes…

        1. +1 cold reading

      2. My car never has litter in it, but I’m not a piggish slob.

        1. I am apparently a filthy, slobbish hermaphrodite. :-/

    2. Judy Tenuta’s routine is coming true: “Your car is blue; we’re going to have to strip-search you.”

  10. Sounds like a pretty good plan to me dude.

    http://www.Crypt-Tools.tk

  11. Information on what is required to be a Royal Knight: https://blackasphalt.org/pages/view/6

    Unreal. If this isn’t a recipe designed to create aggressive and militant cops I don’t know what is.

    1. Somewhere in hell, Stalin is smiling and nodding.

  12. it’s not “bad apples,” it’s “bad laws.”

    Why not both?

  13. This wake-up call is about 20 years too late.

  14. The problem with the WP is not so much that they fail to see the problems in our society (crony capitalism, assert seizures, civil liberties violations, etc.); they are so blatant that almost everybody sees them. The problem with the WP and left wing rags like that is that they make excuses for the people causing those problems and then shift blame to the people who actually would be needed to fix it.

    The WP hasn’t been called “Pravda on the Potomac” for nothing; Pravda operated the same way, blaming “reactionary forces” and “capitalism” for problems that were actually caused by the communist party and central planning.

    1. And thus we see why the catchphrase “policing for profit” got created in the first place.

  15. From 2010-2013 25 percent of all police calls, Kane County, are Traffic Stops.

    And for a Very Safe county, they have a 21 member SWAT team + (it looks like) a OH-58D DoD hand-me-down helicopter.

    http://clevernicknames.wordpre…..on-system/

    1. Also, from the BALE site:

      this private network seems to be under transition to the aegis of a government law enforcement agency:

      “The Black Asphalt Law Enforcement System is under transition to a new supporting law enforcement agency.
      Many enhanced features and support will be made available to users within the next few months.”

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