Over the past several years, awareness of the issue of civil asset forfeiture has garnered the attention of media and legislators around the country. Eric Holder last year made modifications to the policies involving “[f]ederal adoption of property seized by state or local law enforcement under state law.” Holder said that his order does not apply to seizures by state and local authorities working together with or on behalf of a federal agency, nor does it “limit the ability of state and local agencies to pursue the forfeiture of assets pursuant to their respective state laws.”
Many praised this modification of federal policy as an end to civil asset forfeiture. However, that is not the case. In fact, the methods used have simply changed. An investigative summary published by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for the US Department of Justice (DOJ) found “that a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) airport Security Screener had been registered as a paid Confidential Source (CS) for the DEA.” In other words, at least one TSA screener was being offered payment by the DEA to “search passenger luggage at the airport for evidence of illicit activity in violation of DEA policy or federal law.”
While the TSA agent never provided the DEA with any “actionable information” and thus never received payment, the OIG “determined that asking the TSA Security Screener to notify the DEA of
passengers carrying large sums of money in exchange for a reward based on money seized by the DEA violated the DEA’s interdiction manual, and could have violated individuals’ protection against unreasonable searches and seizures if it led to a subsequent DEA enforcement action.”
The Institute for Justice reports, “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.” Adding, “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.”
That means in 87% of the forfeiture cases, no one was ever charged, let alone convicted, of a criminal offense. Despite this lack of criminal charge, only 21 percent of the DEA seizures that happened from 2009-2013 ($163 million in 4,138 individual cash seizures) were even contested, and all or a portion of the seized cash was returned in only in 41 percent of those contested cases. That means that less than 9 percent of people who are victims of asset forfeiture ever got even a portion of their property back, which in the end may be less than their court costs. According to an analysis by the Institute for Justice, from 2009-2013 “half of all DEA cash seizures were under $10,000.” This is nothing less than legalized theft, and it has no place in what is supposed to be a free country where people are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.