A Transportation Security Administration screener was used by the Drug Enforcement Administration as an informant in order “to notify the DEA of passengers carrying large sums of money.” In exchange, the DEA offered the screener “a reward for money seized based on information he provided.”
In an investigative summary released earlier this month, the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that those actions “violated DEA policy.” While the DEA has since discontinued using the screener as a confidential source (for failing to provide actionable intelligence), the Inspector General noted that the arrangement “could have violated individuals’ protection against unreasonable searches and seizures if it led to a subsequent DEA enforcement action.”
Motivated to find and seize cash, the partnership between DEA and TSA agents reveals how civil forfeiture can warp law enforcement priorities. Unlike criminal forfeiture, which requires a criminal conviction before property can be forfeited to the government, under civil forfeiture, people do not have to be convicted of a crime, or even charged to lose their cash and other valuables. Out of all forfeiture cases pursued by the Justice Department, 87 percent were civil forfeiture.
Federal law allows agencies like the DEA to keep up to 100 percent of the proceeds of a forfeited property. Moreover, innocent owners seeking to regain their seized cash must bear the burden of proof and prove their own innocence.
“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,” Institute for Justice Attorney Robert Everett Johnson told The Huffington Post.
This is not the first time DEA seizures have come under fire. In a case that made national headlines, in 2014, the DEA seized $11,000 from Charles Clarke at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport. At the time, Charles (shown above) was a 24-year-old college student and that money represented his entire life savings. Despite finding no drugs on Charles and not charging him with a drug crime, the DEA was convinced his money represented the “proceeds of drug trafficking or was intended to be used in a drug transaction.” Now represented by the Institute for Justice, Charles is fighting to regain his money.
Last year also witnessed greater scrutiny of the DEA. Two Congressmen introduced a bill to cut off federal forfeiture funds from financing one DEA program. In 2015, the Inspector General released a report that criticized DEA agents for their “cold consent” tactics in searching travelers at transportation hubs. According to the watchdog, those encounters are “more often associated with racial profiling” and “can raise civil rights concerns.” That report also found numerous cash seizures by the agency:
“From 2009 to 2013, DEA interdiction [task force groups] seized $163 million in 4,138 individual cash seizures. Twenty-one percent of these seizures were contested, and all or a portion of the seized cash in 41 percent of those contested cases was returned — a total of $8.3 million.”
During that period, half of all DEA cash seizures were under $10,000, according to a later analysis by the Institute for Justice. Such relatively modest sums suggest that the DEA is seizing cash from ordinary Americans, instead of major drug trafficking organizations.
“These laws need to change,” Charles said. “Innocent people are being treated like criminals.”