September 9, 2014 | Like many other aspects of policing in America, civil asset forfeiture morphed into an entirely new beast in the paranoid aftermath of 9/11. The program, which allows law enforcement to seize cash or property without charging people with a crime, has existed in the U.S. for hundreds of years, but picked up steam with the start of the war on drugs in the Reagan era. Yet as and other outlets have reported, the program is rarely used to confiscate stacks of cash from suspected drug lords or money launderers. Instead, it has become a boon for local police departments, who have seized hundreds of millions of dollars from regular people, particularly motorists, who then have to fight prolonged legal battles with the federal government to get their property back. This week, the Washington Post published a thorough investigation into the rise of civil asset forfeiture, exposing the troubling flaws in this widespread practice.
After combing through hundreds of thousands of Justice Department seizure records and hundreds of federal court cases, and interviewing police officers and victims of asset forfeiture, the Post reporters found that police have seized an incredible $2.5 billion since 2001, all from people who were not charged with a crime. Most seizures follow a familiar script: police pull drivers over for minor violations like improper signaling, check the driver for signs of nervousness and the vehicle for signs of criminal activity, and act on thin pretenses to seize the individual’s assets after finding money in the car. People have had thousands of dollars taken from them en route to purchase homes and cars, pay off gambling debts or pay dental bills. Once the money is gone, it can take over a year and many thousands of dollars to prove in court that it legally belongs to its owners, many of whom do not have the resources to fight back.
The Post feature offers interesting insights into the policing culture that allows civil asset forfeiture to flourish. As they report, private security firms now train officers in “highway interdiction,” a nationwide program that allows police to share tactics and information about suspicious drivers, including their Social Security numbers and identifying tattoos. But this sharing of information has an even darker side: chat rooms where cops compete to see who brought in the most contraband and share “trophy shot” photographs of cash hauls and seized property. The appeal of the program for local departments is clear: they are allowed to keep a significant percentage of the proceeds of what they confiscate.
Here are four of the most disturbing facts from the Post’s investigation:
- State and local authorities kept more than $1.7 billion of the $2.5 billion in cash seizures made since 2001.
- Only one sixth of the seizures were challenged in court, thanks in part to the exorbitant costs of taking legal action against the government.
- The program is a critical source of revenue for hundreds of state and local departments. Since 2008, 298 departments and 210 task forces have seized what amounts to 20% or more of their annual budgets.
- Despite the fact that law enforcement officials in states like Kansas refuse to participate in the “highway interdiction” program because they worry it may not be legal, Justice and Homeland Security officials continue to use it.
By Allegra Kirkland, AlterNet’s associate managing editor. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Inc., Daily Serving and the Nation.