A recent Justice Department inspector general report reveals that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) permanently seized $3.2 billion in cash from people who were never charged with a crime.
Over the past decade, DEA authorities have confiscated $4.15 billion in cash using a process called civil asset forfeiture. Of that amount, $3.2 billion — 81 percent — was from individuals who ultimately received no criminal charges.
No court-issued warrants are required for police to initiate these seizures and no narcotics need to be present. While this practice is currently legal, it carries an incredibly high risk of violating civil liberties, according to the report. The protections in place for property owners are weak at best, and with no independent judicial oversight, the opportunity for abuse is ripe.
Civil asset forfeiture allows police to take the property of anyone they suspect of criminal behavior on the basis that the property is linked to a potential crime. Proponents of the law insist that it is an effective tool that allows law enforcement to hit crime where it hurts by targeting its profit, but the inspector general's office finds that the actual extent of its effectiveness remains uncertain since civil asset forfeiture reporting standards are not well regulated.
This makes it incredibly difficult for outside investigators to understand how and why exactly DEA authorities seize property. The inspector general's office discovered that the agency does not use aggregate data to evaluate their civil asset forfeiture operations, and so an understanding of how these operations actually help criminal investigations remains mostly talk.
Without access to data, investigators instead focused on a sample group of 100 DEA cash seizures. These seizures were made without a warrant or the presence of narcotics, and 85 percent occurred in interdiction operations along highways or in transportation hubs.
Needless to say, the findings were concerning.
Along with troubling inconsistencies in training and policy, investigators discovered that only six of the 85 interdiction cases were backed by pre-existing intelligence, the majority being cold consent encounters (i.e. when police officers approach those they find suspicious and ask for their permission to conduct a search). In previous reports, the inspector general's office found that this often leads to racial profiling.
Investigators saw evidence that only 44 cases actually benefited DEA criminal investigations and contributed "in the initiation of new investigations, led to arrests, or led to prosecutions." That means that in over half of the cases studied, there was not enough evidence to prove that the seizing of property actually advanced DEA efforts.
In reference to the DEA's erratic training practices of both federal agents and state task forces, the report had this to say:
"While the factual situations vary from case to case, such differences in treatment demonstrate how seizure decisions can appear arbitrary, which in turn can fuel public perception that law enforcement is not using this powerful authority legitimately."
Civil asset forfeiture has vocal opponents from all over the political spectrum, and the inspector general report findings do nothing to alleviate their concerns, but instead add to the urgency of widespread agency and policy reform.
"These kind of findings undercut the claim that civil forfeiture is vital as a crime-fighting tool," said Darpana Sheth, senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, to The Huffington Post. "The report reaffirms what IJ has been saying all along, about how forfeiture laws create this perverse financial incentive to seize and forfeit property."
"Today's report by the Inspector General makes it clear that asset forfeiture is in desperate need of reform," Rep. and Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) told The Huffington Post. "While asset forfeiture is a useful tool to fight crime, the current lack of oversight and training poses danger to Americans' civil liberties."
Goodlatte and other members of Congress said they see the need for massive reform, however, the current administration seems suspicious of the report's findings and advocates for civil asset forfeiture as it currently exists.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems to have no problem with civil asset forfeiture and may well be in favor of using it more aggressively. President Donald Trump also sides with current DEA practices, and Kenneth Blanco, the acting assistant attorney general appointed by Trump, was highly critical of the inspector general report. In a 10-page response to the inspector general's office findings, he wrote that relying on a review of only 100 DEA cash seizures had led to "inaccurate or misleading" conclusions. He has also said that the Justice Department will look into the negative consequences of a 2015 order that barred local law enforcement from using federal law in civil asset forfeiture cases.
The impact Sessions, Trump and Blanco could have on American civil liberties is great, and many are worried that they will approve measures that place the rights of citizens below policies that benefit state police, federal agents, and the DEA.
Civil asset forfeiture has long been contested, and the practice is dangerous when left to the devices of an agency that does not collect data adequately and currently operates with few checks and balances or consistent policy.
"While we have long recognized that a well-run asset forfeiture program can be an important law enforcement tool, we believe that the Criminal Division’s comments on our report indicate that it has missed a key point," the inspector general's office wrote in a statement responding to Blanco's dismissive reaction to their report. "Regardless of the importance of the tool, it must be used appropriately, with effective oversight, and in a way that does not place undue risks on civil liberties.”