A wide-ranging investigation by USA Today found that agents for the Drug Enforcement Administration have been profiling and seizing cash from travelers at major U.S. airports. Over the past decade, federal drug agents have seized more than $200 million in cash from at least 5,200 people at the nation’s 15 busiest airports.
Los Angeles had the biggest haul for the DEA, with agents taking over $52 million in 1,624 seizures. Yet according to USA Today, “only one of the Los Angeles seizure records included an indication that it was related to a criminal indictment.” Nationwide, the paper identified 87 cases where the DEA “seized cash after flagging a suspicious itinerary, only two resulted in the alleged courier being charged with a crime.” From 2006 to 2013, among all DEA cash seizures, less than half were under $10,000, data analysis by the Institute for Justice revealed.
“Going after someone’s property has nothing to do with protecting them and it has everything to do with going after the money,” Renée Flaherty, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, told USA Today.
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The paper reported that there is a “wide network” of informants who have “flagged travelers for questioning based on whether they were traveling with one-way tickets, had paid in cash, had listed a non-working phone number on the reservation or had checked luggage.” Incredibly, some informants are “paid a percentage if their tips lead to a significant seizure.” As one former DEA supervisor put it, “They count on this as part of the budget. Basically, you’ve got to feed the monster.”
Under federal civil forfeiture laws, agencies like the DEA can keep up to 100 percent of the proceeds from forfeited property. Meanwhile, property owners face an uphill battle if they choose to fight back in court. Unlike criminal cases, which require proof beyond a reasonable doubt to secure a conviction, in civil forfeiture, prosecutors need only make their case by a “preponderance of the evidence,” a far lower legal standard.
This is not the first time the DEA has run into hot water for confiscating cash. Last year, the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Justice slammed the DEA’s use of “cold consent” tactics, which allows agents to seize cash without warrants; cold consent has also been compared to stop-and-frisk. In September, two congressmen introduced a bill that would cut off federal forfeiture funds for DEA marijuana seizures. And the Institute for Justice is currently representing Charles Clarke, a college student who had his life savings seized by a DEA agent at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport.