DEA Admits Constitutional Problems with Seizure Policies

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a public congressional hearing in November to investigate recent allegations of misconduct in the Department of Justice (DOJ). The triggering event was a recent audit from the Office of the Inspector General (IG) that sharply criticized the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for potentially extensive “fraud, waste, and abuse” through years of lax oversight of its powerful but secretive Confidential Source (CS) Program.

In their respective testimonies, Inspector General Michael Horowitz and DEA spokesman Melvin Patterson both admitted the exploitative civil forfeiture policies that enabled the DEA’s misbehavior entail “Fourth Amendment issues.” These issues stem from perverse incentives for law enforcement to mistreat innocent people. In a revealing exchange with Rep. Tim Walberg of Michigan, Horowitz went so far as to affirm concerns that “the DEA’s policies are warping priorities by prioritizing asset forfeiture rather than the seizure of drugs.”

This is an extraordinary admission concerning an agency that exists and is explicitly named for its duty to enforce federal drug laws.

The audits’ findings, which were previously reported in Forbes, include the DEA paying $237 million to CS informants to seize property from people’s luggage and mail as “evidence” of unsubstantiated wrongdoing. Agency sources who facilitated civil forfeitures stood to gain kickbacks “of up to $500,000 or 25 percent” of each seizure, whereas the DEA managed to shirk private citizen’s constitutional protections. As such, DOJ investigators determined these transactions “could have implications relating to compliance with the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

The DEA acknowledged in Patterson’s testimony that it failed even to track metrics on the effectiveness of its CS program and rampant civil forfeiture, such as “convictions [and] drug seizures.” Horowitz and Patterson also admitted the DEA did not keep accurate accounting of its expenditures or whether any of its efforts were “worth it” even on the agency’s terms.

This embarrassing reality probably led to former DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart’s stubborn, year-long obstruction of the IG’s efforts to hold the agency accountable. As Horowitz’s congressional testimony noted, the previous DEA leadership managed to delay the audit’s completion by 18 months. Only when new leadership took over did the agency finally cooperate with the IG and make information fully available for review.

This hearing highlights the systemic abuse civil forfeiture enables against hardworking families. The Institute for Justice will continue to advocate in court and with policymakers to enact necessary reforms that protect innocent Americans from this unconstitutional practice.

Rek LeCounte, Communications Project Manager, Institute for Justice

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