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The DEA's Warrantless Cash Grab

Drug squads snag $4 billion using asset forfeiture.

Do you want to know the dirty secret about how the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) confiscates suspected drug traffickers' money? The truth is, it's not hard: Agents just go to an airport and wait for cash to drop into their laps.

A March report by the Justice Department's inspector general (I.G.) found the DEA seized a whopping $4 billion in cash over the past decade using civil asset forfeiture, mostly from airports, train stations, and bus terminals.

Contrary to DEA rhetoric, these seizures have little to do with ongoing criminal investigations and everything to do with bringing in money. In 81 percent of the cases the I.G. reviewed, there were no accompanying criminal charges.

A 2016 investigation by USA Today found the DEA regularly mines American citizens' travel information and relies on a network of confidential informants in the travel industry, who often get kickbacks for snooping on suspicious passengers.

Common red flags include buying a ticket within 24 hours of travel, buying a ticket for a long flight with an immediate return, buying a one-way ticket, and traveling without checked luggage. They also include traveling to or from "a known source city for drug trafficking," which in practice can mean just about any major city in the United States.

The DEA detains suspicious passengers, questions them, and searches their luggage. If agents find large amounts of cash and think it's linked to drugs, they seize it—even if there is no hard evidence that it is connected to illegal activity. As the I.G. notes, agents "rely on their immediate, on-the-spot judgment." The passenger is then often released, bereft of money.

Many of these seizures are well over $100,000, but in some cases this "on-the-spot judgment" leads agents to seize smaller amounts of cash while failing to do any basic investigation. In 2014, agents at Detroit Metro Airport took roughly $25,000 from Christelle Tillerson after she was flagged for buying a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. According to the Detroit Free Press, Tillerson said the money was from her boyfriend's retirement account, and she was using it to buy a truck. She was never charged with a crime, and her lawyer said the DEA agents never even questioned her about drug trafficking.

Tillerson sued, and eventually the government gave back all of her money—except for $4,000. One wonders how the Justice Department determined that amount was likely connected to illicit activity while the other $21,000 was not.

In another case highlighted by the inspector general report, the DEA seized $27,000 from a man in an airport but let him keep $1,000 to travel home. If the task force agents really thought that man's cash was connected to drug activity, why allow him to keep any of it? If they weren't sure, why take it in the first place?

There is no logical reason. Without clear evidentiary standards or guidelines—or even the convincing appearance of an ongoing criminal investigation—the DEA's asset forfeiture program becomes little more than a poorly disguised shakedown.

"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 inspector general warned.

That reality is already here, and federal law enforcement officers are raking in hundreds of millions of dollars a year with little oversight or constitutional protections for property owners.

Most of these types of seizures are never challenged. The I.G. found petitions were filed in only 20 percent of the DEA cash seizures it reviewed. Of those that were challenged, though, 40 percent saw money fully or partially returned to the owner, indicating that there may be a significant number of unfounded seizures going unchallenged.

Darpana Sheth, an attorney for the libertarian nonprofit law firm the Institute for Justice, said in a statement that the I.G. report's 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," she continued. "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."

Photo Credit: IStockphoto

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  • Jerryskids||

    So what happens to the money the DEA seizes? I know at the local level, asset forfeiture is often a slush fund for the locals. The state gets a slice of the pie but the rest does not go into the county or city general funds, it's an off-budget source of funds for the cops. (Supposedly, the cops only get to keep "expenses" but we all know how creative accounting works.) States differ in the laws regarding the split, some understand the perverse incentives and mandate the seized assets go into the general fund to make sure the cops aren't policing for profit while others turn a blind eye to the racket.

    At the federal level, you've got a similar racket with the EPA and other executive branch agencies and their civil settlements - as far as I know the fines go back to the Treasury but there's the "less expenses" where the agency can recover its costs of investigation and prosecution and there's that creative accounting again. Once you've got an agency with its own source of funds, the system of checks and balances breaks down, they don't fear Congress' power of the purse.

    The problem isn't just that law enforcement is acting as a gang of armed robbers, it's that who's going to stop them? Cut off their funds? They're robbers, they've got their own revenue generating capability and there's no accountability to the voters for where that revenue's coming from.

  • Jerryskids||

    And of course we've all seen stories of where seized assets pay for office parties and trips to Vegas and so on - if you're investigating drug dealers and your undercover operations entail following them to high-end bars and steak houses and strip clubs, well, you gotta expense account those lap dances just the same as your gas ticket, don't you? Hey, in the end, the drug dealers are paying for it all aren't they?

  • gaoxiaen||

    You aren't really one of Jerry's Kids.

  • Agammamon||

    Hmm.

    'Hey, he's a cop!'

    'I am not!'

    'Yeah yous is, I saw you get a receipt!'

  • cravinbob||

    Here is a link to a very good piece on how it is done and where the money goes http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/08/12/taken

  • Hank Phillips||

    Both the People's Democratic Party and God's Own Prohibitionists IN THEIR PLATFORMS call for the maintenance of asset-forfeiture looting. Their only concern is to lessen the volume of the leper's bell of the approaching looter. Both looter parties endorsing the practice are appalled by manifest and widespread "abuses".
    "I weep for you,' the Looter said: I deeply sympathize.'
    With sobs and tears he sorted out Those of the largest size, Holding his pocket-handkerchief Before his streaming eyes." Everyone who failed to vote the Libertarian ticket gave the Sanction of the Victims to continued looting and shooting. Rotsa ruck getting "both" looter parties to admit their error.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    "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 inspector general warned.

    "Let's see... [holding up hands in mock scale motion] ...switching to ethical behavior because of one toothless report or continuing to rake in easy money. Hmmm... which will we choose?"

  • dantheserene||

    It's straight up armed robbery. Every time I see one of these articles I up my donation to Institute for Justice.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Good move, but with BOTH looter parties and their jackbooted minions gorging on the proceeds, only spoiler votes cast for a party with the honesty and integrity to oppose the practice can change the laws and ban the robbery.
    And while we're on the subject of financial and economic impact of robbing travelers, seen any recent US tourism revenue figures lately?

  • KerryW||

    In another case highlighted by the inspector general report, the DEA seized $27,000 from a man in an airport but let him keep $1,000 to travel home. If the task force agents really thought that man's cash was connected to drug activity, why allow him to keep any of it?

    Because they are decent human beings and don't want the poor guy to be stranded away from home.

    /sarc (in case it wasn't obvious)

  • LarryA||

    Because buying him off for a grand is easier than arresting him and filing charges.

  • Mark22||

    Tillerson sued, and eventually the government gave back all of her money—except for $4,000. One wonders how the Justice Department determined that amount was likely connected to illicit activity while the other $21,000 was not.

    Come on, learn to think like a bureaucrat: "The $4000 was an administrative fee. It compensates the government for all the trouble they had to go through for dealing with Tillerson and her case."

  • Francisco d'Anconia||

    Sadly, that's likely the case.

  • Number 7||

    I feel bad for this woman. She gets robbed of $25K, probably waited a year to get $21K back and had to give probably $5K to the lawyer so for absolutely no fault of her own she lost 9 or 10 grand.

  • Francisco d'Anconia||

    If only there were some rule to limit government theft.

    Amendment 4 - Search and Seizure

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
  • Hank Phillips||

    Good. Now compare that Amendment with the Asset-Forfeiture Planks of "both" entrenched kleptocracy parties. Local libertarian parties need to be approaching these victims and explaining the law-changing leverage of libertarian spoiler votes. Seriously, if "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude..." had any effect on the roundup and enslavement of young people for cannon fodder, how is the 4th Amendment supposed to make a difference to looters who have likewise placed their hand on the Bauble and lied? The Marron and Olstead cases nullified the 4th Amendment while the 18th Amendment was in force. Votes are what determine government jobs, so votes--not scraps of paper--are what count if we are to prevent additional Crashes and Depressions. Who was it that warned of the leper's bell of the approaching looter?

  • Number 7||

    "the DEA's asset forfeiture program becomes little more than a poorly disguised shakedown."

    How can you possibly conclude that this shakedown is poorly disguised? I isn't disguised and it isn't poorly.

  • Number 7||

    When my mom died I booked a flight to LA like two hours before it left, and booked one way as I didn't know when I was returning. Of course I probably had $50 with me so I guess the joke would have been on them.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    This is why we desperately need to end the 'War On Drugs' (TM). Not because drugs are harmless; I am still far from persuaded that even Marijuana is as innocuous as some would have us believe. Because prosecuting it erodes our fundamental protections against tyranny. No-knock raids? Thank the drug war. Asset forfeiture? Thank the drug war. Militarized police teams at loose ends, so they end up raiding poker games? Thank the drug war. Sobriety checkpoints? The idea that the Government has the authority to enforce its (outdated) notions of nutrition? The incarceration of millions? Thank the drug war.

    *spit*

  • dchang0||

    Spot on.

    Honestly, I think gov't would do all of the evil things you listed even without the drug war. It's just that the drug war is the most convenient excuse to do so at this time in this place. Throughout history, we've repeatedly seen gov'ts illegally seize assets, raid private gatherings, and establish checkpoints even without a War on Drugs (TM). Seems like that's what gov'ts just plain do, no matter the reason. I figure these exact same things are going on now in some Muslim country under the pretext of following sharia law, for instance.

    So, let's say we successfully shut down the War on Drugs (TM). Gov't will just keep on doing all those evil things, perhaps under the War on Terrorism (TM) or someday, the War on Intolerance (TM).

    I suppose the only solution is a perpetual War on Governments (TM) by the people.

  • Gary T||

    WarOnDrugs™

    (It is Alt-0153)

  • ||

    This, among many, many others, is an abuse of government of its citizens. Few talk about it, though, and, while there may well be outrage out there, there isn't enough of it to change anything.

    "When government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny." Thomas Jefferson

  • IceTrey||

    I can't even imagine the mindset of someone willing to do this. Pure scum definitely not a real American.

  • ChroMikey||

    When I was younger, and thinking about a career as a criminal, I deduced that the most efficient and effective means would be to work for the gov't in law enforcement.. That it is so very socially acceptable to be a thieving sociopath, as long as you have a badge, still gives me pause to ponder why I never pursued such a lucrative and "legal" method of self-enrichment.. As less than 10% of people adhere to a rational morality (not necessarily moral rationalism), I wonder sometimes if I chose to be consistent out of some kind of masochism or self-hatred..

  • Gene||

    Sucker.

  • Hank Phillips||

    All you need do is get popped with some hemp roots in the dirt under your lawn. Then when they confiscate your home for cultivation but assign you liability for the balance of the mortgage anyway. To avoid death from exposure you then "agree" under duress to work for the looters in finding them more victims. There's your government job, assuming you don't get killed instead by those intended victims shielded by a competing gang of looter cops.

  • mondo_cane||

    Good idea. I should have done that instead of working for a living. Golly, I'd get to wear a uniform, a badge and carry a gun. Then I'd be in line for the loot theses suckers take. The Ramparts thing in LA is a cop's dream.

  • jennyhannb||

    That reality is already here, and federal law enforcement officers are raking in hundreds of millions of dollars a year with little oversight or constitutional protections for property owners. @http://hotmailloginproblem.com/outlook

  • LEAPGuyAZ||

    Long ago in America police would setup speed traps as a way to make money for the police agency. The abuse from those speed traps taught us that when police profit directly from enforcement, it's ripe for abuse and corruption. Now the revenue generated by traffic enforcement goes to the general fund for the state.

    Asset forfeiture allows law enforcement agencies to directly profit from enforcement actions and that creates abuse. It becomes more about seizing money than drug enforcement. In Montana a small sheriff office received $4,000,000 from a seizure related to a big grow operation. The county only has around 7000 citizens. The sheriff's office had a total of six people, the sheriff, the undersheriff, and four deputies.

    At the time under Montana law the $4,000,000 could only be used for drug enforcement. No new patrol cars for deputies who's vehicles had 150,000 miles, no new radio system, just $4,000,000 for drug enforcement. Enough to arrest everyone in the small county......

  • Robert||

    All sending it to the gen'l fund does is share the loot more widely, giving the entire public a stake in looting.

  • Hank Phillips||

    This gets interesting when you notice the May 6, 2010 Flash Crash immediately followed kleptocracy seizures of bank accounts belonging to Colombian nationals. The March 18, 2015 coincided down to the minute with release of the kleptocracy blueprint for global armed robbery. You can see this yourself. Google "March 18, 2015" narcotics, and the title pops into view. It is a for National Socialist domination of the entire planet through sumptuary laws and the worldwide exportation of shoot-first prohibitionism.
    Every agency of paranoid parasites is listed in the document. They are the same ones active in asset forfeiture running up to the George Waffen Bush Crash of 2007. Then again, perhaps concurrent state and federal confiscation of thousands of homes had nothing whatsoever to do with triggering a nationwide dumping of variable-rate mortgages. The assertion that "all men are mortal" is, after all, entirely founded on coincidence. Search "forfeiture of homes" and--by coincidence--up pop the Presidential Papers of Herbert Hoover, who took office in 1929.

  • simplybe||

    No matter how you try to slice it this is nothing but stealing and all of those involved should be in jail

  • Robert||

    Now there's a cash grab we can all get behind!

  • Uncle Jay||

    RE: The DEA's Warrantless Cash Grab

    1. Ah...the DEA. The brainchild of one of the worst presidents the USA has ever had...Richard Nixon.
    2. "Drug squads snag $4 billion using asset forfeiture."
    Who says crimes doesn't pay?
    3. Aren't you glad that we have an AG that is in favor of the current policy of warrant-less cash grabs from (and for) our police forces?

  • CZmacure||


    THERE IS NO NATIONAL POLICE JURISDICTION IN THE FEDERAL CONSTITUTION.

    After the civil war, the federal government simply did whatever it wanted and no one dared to oppose it. This attracted career criminals to government like a magnet.

    "The War on Drugs has corrupted law enforcement to the point where the DEA is indistinguishable from the cartels"

    http:// thefreethoughtproject.com/ dea-chief-propagandist-cannabis-is-safe/
    https:// illegallyhealed.com/ former-dea-spokeswoman-marijuana-safe-dea-knows/

    The Government's War on Property

    https://fee.org/ articles/the-governments-war-on-property/
    http://tenthamendmentcenter.com/
    https://www.conventionofstates.com/

  • CZmacure||

    "Unless we put medical freedom into the Constitution, the time will come when medicine will organize into an undercover dictatorship to restrict the art of healing to one class of Men and deny equal privileges to others; the Constitution of the Republic should make a Special privilege for medical freedoms as well as religious freedom."Benjamin Rush

    "When all government, domestic and foreign, in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as the center of all power, it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another, and will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated." —Thomas Jefferson

  • mondo_cane||

    Why is this obviously corrupt practice allowed to continue?

    Originally, the RICO act had to be in play -- the alleged criminal had to be involved in racketeering. Then there was a process for taking any ill-gotten gains. But no more.

    I know local small town police who are making asset forfeitures of fairly large amounts against some store operator who deposited his money wrong or too often or not often enough, too large an amount in the judgement of a cop who can't count to a hundred.

    Our corrupt governance is condemned in this blog daily, but when it comes to ending this, I don't hear a peep. So what's the reason that no one cares? Are we a bunch of morons? I say enough of this.

  • John B. Egan||

    Government thievery... Nothing more. Some states are working to reduce it, but it should be illegal. Supposedly, in our country you cannot just steal from people without a proven case against them.

  • Jacks61||

    Legalized robbery plain and simple. Don't expect any help from Law & Order Sessions. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't get worse.

    Whatever good intentions asset forfeiture started with is long gone. Now it's been twisted into this legal and accepted way to take your money.

  • dunce||

    I find it amazing that they don't just drive especially if it is drug money. It is obvious that everyone is being tracked with computer data bases. Real drug dealers run rings around the feds and rarely get caught up in digital webs.

  • CZmacure||

    This, among many, many others, is an abuse of government of its citizens. Few talk about it, though, and, while there may well be outrage out there, there isn't enough of it to change anything.

    "When government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny." Thomas Jefferson

    My recent post: LetClicks Review

    My recent post: Vidello Review

  • CZmacure||

    1. Ah...the DEA. The brainchild of one of the worst presidents the USA has ever had...Richard Nixon.
    2. "Drug squads snag $4 billion using asset forfeiture."
    Who says crimes doesn't pay?
    3. Aren't you glad that we have an AG that is in favor of the current policy of warrant-less cash grabs from (and for) our police forces?
    My recent post: List Building Feedback Review

  • Gary T||

    A recent statistic cites civil forfeitures exceeding criminal burglary in losses from citizens.
    This means you have a better chance of being robbed by the govt in direct highwayman style shakedowns, than you do of getting burglared.

    The govt has become the thing they are supposed to protect you against.

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