In an obvious overreach of authority and power, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is being condemned by a Department of Justice watchdog following a report that the DEA had hired a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security screener to purposefully search luggage for cash that the DEA could confiscate. Furthermore, the DEA had plans to pay the agent out of the cash that he or she helped the agency to seize, which the Office of Inspector General says “could have violated individuals’ protection against unreasonable searches and seizures if it led to a subsequent DEA enforcement action.”
The deliberate partnership between the DEA and the TSA underscores broad concern about a controversial — but legal — practice known as “civil asset forfeiture.” Civil asset forfeiture is a legal tool that allows law enforcement officials to seize property that they assert has been involved in certain criminal activity. Even if the owner of the property isn’t guilty of a crime, the property can still be seized because civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement to charge the property itself with involvement in a crime. Many fear that civil asset forfeiture leads to what is called “policing for a profit.”
The Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General has concluded that the agreement between the DEA and the TSA “violated DEA policy” on many levels, although it has been determined that the TSA informant hired by the DEA had not yet provided any information to the DEA.
The OIG was concerned with whether or not an arrangement in which a TSA agent was encouraged to use his or her position as a screener to alert the DEA to the presence of cash in a traveler’s luggage, and then be compensated from that cash based on how profitable the information supplied to the DEA turned out to be, is legal or ethical.
Robert Everett Johnson, an attorney for the libertarian public interest law firm Institute for Justice, says the same criticism should be applied to the entire practice of civil asset forfeiture, which allows law enforcement officials to seize anything — including cash, cars, jewelry, and houses — from a citizen without obtaining a conviction or charging the property’s owner with any crime.
“This really is what we see every day around the country — when law enforcement takes property using civil forfeiture, law enforcement is able to keep that property and use it to fund their budgets and in many cases even to pay the salaries of people who are overseeing the forfeitures.”
He added, “That creates an obvious financial incentive to take property from people who haven’t done anything or haven’t been proven to have done anything wrong. It creates an incentive for all kinds of abuse.”
Civil asset forfeiture has come under increasing criticism as it has developed into a “critical source of revenue for law enforcement over the past decade, with state and federal agencies now taking in hundreds of millions of dollars in property, and likely more, each year. Cash has, meanwhile, emerged as a favorite target for police, even if it’s just hundreds or thousands of dollars,” according to the Huffington Post.
Airports and train stations are of particular focus to the DEA. In fact, a 2015 OIG report found that just from 2009 to 2013, the DEA seized a staggering total of $163 million in 4,138 cash seizures — and many of those were later contested and overturned. The DEA has also come under fire recently for not just seizing cash from travellers, but also allegedly shaking them down.
In the Justice Department report this month, the OIG also called out the DEA for paying an Amtrak informant nearly $1 million over two decades to provide them with passenger information that was already available to the agency.
Law enforcement officials and those who support civil asset forfeiture claim it is an important tool in the fight against the drug trade, since it allows them to seize property directly without the need for an evidence of criminal behavior from the owner of the property, saying that drug traffickers are simply smart enough to not carry the cash and the drugs at the same time.
It is not actually illegal at all for any individual to put a large quantity of cash into checked luggage, but the presence of such, combined with the legal action of civil asset forfeiture, can make doing so a dangerous proposition. Officers will often seize cash based solely on the presumption that the presence of a large sum of it indicates drug activity. Once the cash is seized, law enforcement can then essentially work their case backwards, and often win such cases based on weak evidence, forcing the property owners burdened with trying to prove that their property is not related to criminal activity.
Johnson said the TSA case highlights all of these concerns, and demonstrates that the DEA is “willing to go to great lengths to expand its ability to make profitable seizures.”
“That’s really what the OIG is saying: The TSA agents should be focused on doing their job the way the TSA wants them to be doing their job, not what they’re getting paid to do by the DEA,” Johnson said.
“It just warps the TSA agents’ priorities,” he added.
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