DEA seized $3.2 billion in cash from people never under investigation – Justice Dept
“For the majority of the seizures we examined, the department could not verify that the seizure could advance or was related to a criminal investigation,” said Michael Horowitz, Inspector General, Justice Department in a video accompanying the 74-page report, released on Wednesday.
Inspectors examined 100 out of 80,000 cash seizures where the DEA took in $4.15 billion in cash during cases conducted between fiscal years 2007 to 2016. The seizures were made without a court-issued warrant and without the presence of narcotics — a potential violation of the 4th Amendment. Of those, 85 were stops at transportation facilities or along highways. The smallest seizure involved $3,000 confiscated at an airport.
Only six of those 85 cases were prompted by pre-existing intelligence about a specific drug crime, and most were associated with “cold consent encounters” where officers approached people they suspected of involvement in drug trafficking and asked their permission to conduct a search.
“Most of the seizures we examined occurred at transportation facilities and were initiated based on the observations and immediate judgement of DEA agents and state and local task force officers, without preexisting intelligence of a specific drug crime,” said Horowitz.
Responding to the findings, Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Blanco said the inspector general took a sample that was not representative of broader Justice Department practices and drew faulty conclusions based on mistakenly analyzed data, according to Washington Post.
Blanco wrote that 81 of the 100 seizures “were likely” tied to a criminal investigation and “were not the sorts of seizures that pose risks to civil liberties.”
The inspector general’s office has in the past criticized this practice as being prone to racial profiling. Reports in the Chicago Times, the Washington Post and USA Today have exposed concerns about the size of seizures, the lack of court involvement, and issues of potential racial profiling.
The DEA was the focus of the investigation as it is responsible for 80 percent of the Department’s cash seizures. While the report acknowledged that the DOJ views asset forfeiture as “an important tool to reduce the financial incentives for criminal activity,” it found the agency was lax in its oversight and did not require training for local and state agents even though they were given the same authority as federal agents.
“While the factual situations vary from case to case, such differences in treatment demonstrate how seizure decisions can appear arbitrary, which in turn can fuel public perception that law enforcement is not using this powerful authority legitimately,” the report said.
Over the past 10 years, the DOJ’s Asset Forfeiture program has yielded over $28 billion. The department uses the proceeds to compensate victims of associated crimes and to fund other forfeiture-related activities, such as payments to local and state law enforcement through equitable sharing.
“For instance, the Department will use forfeited assets associate with Bernie Madoff’s crimes to compensate his victims. The Department anticipates making additional payments of $4 billion in this matter, bringing the total amount of victim compensation to over $8 billion by the close of the Madoff compensation process,” according to the report.
Blanco added that the report fails to acknowledge the scale of the problem the program is intended to combat “that is, the staggering volume of illicit proceeds (often cash) that are generated globally and which criminal actors move and conceal in increasingly creative ways.”
Blanco wrote that it was difficult to construct a system that linked seizures to specific criminal investigations, but officials were working to create a new system.