USA Today recently released findings from an investigation it had been conducting on the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) use of civil forfeiture in airports around the country.
As it turns out, over the past decade the DEA has used domestic travel records to seize more than $200 million from over 5,200 individuals in 15 of the busiest airports around the country. Looking for specific travel patterns (like buying a one-way ticket or purchasing an airline ticket in cash) the DEA used this information to profile individuals who may potentially be involved with drug trafficking.
Since the information gleaned from profiling offered no substantial proof that these individuals were involved in any drug-related activities, the DEA had no real authority to detain those it flagged as potential suspects.
Instead, agents typically used the itinerary information to approach the unknowing passengers and ask if they would be willing to answer a few questions. From there, the conversation would diverge into the agent eventually asking to search the suspect. While the alleged suspect is free to decline that request, the refusal to be searched can constitute probable cause, which the agent can use to conduct a search regardless of consent.
If cash was found on the alleged suspects, which was often the case, the DEA agents used civil asset forfeiture laws to seize the cash without first charging them with a crime.
One of the most problematic elements of civil forfeiture is that it encourages law enforcement to “police for profit.” Under the current laws, the DEA is permitted to keep 100 percent of the forfeited funds it seizes, incentivizing the DEA and other law enforcement agencies to continue this practice.
The “policing for profit” element doesn’t end there. Since the DEA is a federal law enforcement agency, some of the seized funds are paid to local law enforcement personnel who cooperate with the DEA’s protocol and informants who help gather and relay information about the alleged suspects.
However, the majority of these alleged suspects never ends up getting charged with a crime, but that doesn’t mean they get their money back. Civil asset forfeiture laws were designed to make it nearly impossible for suspects to retrieve their property. For those who attempt to fight for the return of their confiscated property, it is an uphill legal battle that is exorbitantly expensive and often ends in defeat for the victims of civil asset forfeiture.
To make matters worse, when it comes to asset forfeiture the government is not even responsible for proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, prosecutors need only prove a “preponderance of evidence,” which carries a much lower threshold than proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
According to the USA Today investigation, out of the 87 cases where the DEA monitored travel records, only two of those cases ended in criminal charges being brought forth against the alleged suspect.
Without a strict adherence to the rule of law and an unwavering commitment to due process, policing for profit will continue to harm many innocent Americans whose only crime is fitting into a travel pattern that the DEA decides could potentially be tied to drug trafficking.