Civil Asset Forfeiture

Constitution Cramp Your Law Enforcement Style? Contract Out Your Civil Liberties Violations!


Elijah Bosley

As part of its series on the legalized theft known as asset forfeiture and the ways in which police agencies mug the public to pad their budgets (covered the other day by Scott Shackford), the Washington Post notes a "private" intelligence network founded by a former police officer. I use the scare quotes because, even though Black Asphalt Electronic Networking & Notification System is run by Desert Snow, an independent corporation founded by retired California highway patrolman named Joe David, it was created to work around legal limitations on what formal government programs can do, and is funded through contracts paid with tax dollars.

According to the Post:

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.

The system also allows police to file "be on the lookout" reports, known as BOLOs, based on officer hunches—or potentially even grudges—and accessible to any agency that signs on. David and his staff have even pulled over cars and seized assets on a contract basis for local departments—an arrangement that got them threatened with arrest by one pissed off judge.

Even before Black Asphalt debuted in 2004, Desert Snow received "millions from federal contracts and grants as the leader of a cottage industry of firms teaching aggressive methods for highway interdiction." It continues to receive taxpayer funds, including $268,000 so far this year from Customs and Border Protection.

Black Asphalt is now nominally under the control of an Oklahoma sheriff's department to defuse concerns about its private nature. But it remains a way of outsourcing squirrelly police tactics by "privatizing" them to a company that exists to do on behalf of government agencies what they really aren't allowed to do themselves. In some ways, Black Asphalt resembles Vigilant Solutions' National Vehicle Location Service, which records and stores license plate records on behalf of agencies that then don't have to use their own resources or come up with their own privacy policies.

Why worry about oversight and civil liberties protections when you can outsource the dirty work and claim that your own hands are clean? Especially when, as with asset forfeiture, the results are so lucrative.