Breaking News:Dangerous Delays: What Washington State (Re)Teaches Us About Cash and Cannabis Store Robberies [REPORT]

Asset Forfeiture

RSS Feed for this category

New Study: Most Money Has Cocaine Residue On It

Researchers at Dartmouth have provided further confirmation of the popular rumor:
A UMass Dartmouth chemistry professor's study detected trace amounts of cocaine in 67 percent of the dollar bills researchers collected in Southeastern Massachusetts during the past two years.

"I hope this can give objective data so law enforcement can take the right measures to eliminate, or reduce, these kinds of problems and increase the community's security," Mr. Zuo said. []
I'm not sure what he means here. Obviously, the drug war is precisely the reason we all have drugs stuck to our money. The drug trade is a cash-only business, thanks to prohibition. So every time you reach into your wallet, the far-reaching consequences of our disastrous war on drugs will literally stick to your fingers. There's nothing law-enforcement can do about that, except speak out against this mindless crusade.

Really, if there's anything worthwhile to be learned from all this, it's that police must stop confiscating people's money every time a drug sniffing dog hits on it. Over and over we learn about naïve citizens losing their life-savings under our forfeiture laws, often based largely on that singular and clearly absurd criteria.

Having traces of drugs on your money doesn't mean you're a drug dealer. It just means you live in a nation with a massive, out of control war on drugs that infects everything it touches.
United States

Our Drug Laws Literally Allow Police to Steal From Innocent People

I received this email through the Flex Your Rights website a few weeks back and found it quite disturbing, though perfectly typical and unsurprising by drug war standards:

I'm a retired police lieutenant from a large midwestern city. Prior to my retirement my department, like so many others, saw dollar signs when new laws in response to the "drug war" (gawd, what a mistake THAT has turned out to be) allowed law enforcement to seize property with either flimsy or non-existent probable cause.

Special police units were posted on the expressways leading into the city with instructions to stop as many cars as possible, search them and the occupants, and if anyone had more than a few dollars, SEIZE IT.

Our command staff gleefully reported to us that the burden of proof was on the citizen to prove that the money was NOT drug proceeds, and since the amount of money seized would often be less than the amount that the citizen would have to spend to sue us, that we could be assured of keeping the bulk of the money.

I was flabbergasted. To make things worse, part of my yearly performance rating as a police lieutenant was based on how much money and other real property, such as cars, that my troops seized. On my instructions, my troops never seized a dime.

Turning law enforcement officers into bounty hunters is one of the most tragic mistakes this country has ever made.

Keep up the good work.
Lieutenant Harry Thomas (ret.)
I can't verify any of this, but I really don't need to. Lt. Thomas describes the asset forfeiture epidemic that corrupted law enforcement agencies throughout the nation, necessitating the formation of Forfeiture Endangers American Rights (FEAR) in 1992 and the passage of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000. And now that forfeiture laws have been "reformed," police have since felt free to continue confiscating property under the most ludicrous circumstances because the drug war says it's ok.

Lt. Thomas's story provides a particularly disturbing picture of police officers being commanded by their superiors to operate as an extortion ring. The recognition that citizens would have a difficult time proving their property "innocent" demonstrates an unconscionable willingness to seize property from law-abiding citizens. Put simply, the behavior described above is theft in both effect and intent.

Make what you will of this particular account, but if you think that one could implement forfeiture laws such as ours without provoking this exact behavior, then I dare you to put your life savings in a briefcase and drive around Indiana consenting to police searches.

United States

Medical Marijuana: DEA Threatens San Francisco Dispensary Landlords, Dispensaries Sue, Conyers to Hold Hearings

In a reprise of a tactic first used against Los Angeles and Sacramento area dispensaries, the DEA this week sent letters to dozens of owners of buildings leased to San Francisco dispensaries warning them that their buildings could be seized. Dispensary operators responded by filing suit in federal court to stop the agency, and a high-ranking congressman has promised to hold hearings on the matter.

Medical marijuana has been legal in California since 1996, and currently, hundreds of dispensaries are operating in the state to provide marijuana to patients qualified under the state's admittedly loose law. DEA raids and federal prosecution have failed to blunt their growth, and the landlord letters are only the latest wrinkle in the agency's war on the will of California voters.

"By this notice, you have been made aware of the purposes for which the property is being used," said a copy of the letter sent to San Francisco landlords, signed by the special agent in charge of the DEA's San Francisco office, Javier Pena. "You are further advised that violations of federal laws relating to marijuana may result in criminal prosecution, imprisonment, fines and forfeiture of assets."

The letter gave no deadlines.

San Francisco once had as many as 40 dispensaries, although only 28 have applied for licenses under a city regulatory process that began in July. But dispensaries may also be linked to other buildings where medical marijuana grows or storage take place.

"The feds do as they please... (and) they've done it before," San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi told the San Francisco Chronicle, adding he would not be surprised at a crackdown. "I would only hope they would coordinate with local law enforcement and that they are aware of the new regulatory system we have in place, and are sensitive to it."

Dispensary operators, however, were not quite so sanguine. A previously little known industry grouping, the Union of Medical Marijuana Providers, last week joined the Los Angeles area Arts District Healing Center in filing a federal lawsuit charging the DEA with extorting landlords. The lawsuit seeks an injunction to bar the DEA from sending any more threatening letters.

Dispensary operators and their supporters are also looking forward to hearings on the issue in the House Judiciary Committee. In response to complaints from California, last Friday, committee chair Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) announced he would hold hearings on the issue.

"I am deeply concerned about recent reports that the Drug Enforcement Administration is threatening private landlords with asset forfeiture and possible imprisonment if they refuse to evict organizations legally dispensing medical marijuana to suffering patients," Conyers said in a statement. "The committee has already questioned the DEA about its efforts to undermine California state law on this subject, and we intend to sharply question this specific tactic as part of our oversight efforts."

"When I saw Representative Conyers statement regarding the DEA's abuse of their power in order to thwart California's law, I knew that our legal efforts were beginning to pay off," said James Shaw, executive director of the Union. "The DEA has alienated too many citizens with their heavy-handed 'above the law tactics' for too long. We welcome all the support we can find in our efforts to ensure our rights are protected."

Steven Schectman, the Union's chief counsel, said he has contacted Representative Conyers' office in order to provide his staff copies of the litigation that was filed in both state and federal Court. "I am hopeful we can support the Judiciary Committee in any way possible. As a result of our research and investigation of the DEA's threatening letter campaign, in preparation of our litigation, we have become the most knowledgeable group, outside the DEA, who best understands the scope and import of their tactics. We are here to help."

Asset Forfeiture in Drug Cases is Hurting Investment in the Inner Cities

One of our readers sent in the following observations about asset forfeiture and its impact on investing (and consequently economic development) in neighborhoods that are perceived to have illegal drug problems. (Forfeiture is not solely limited to drug cases, but drugs are the mainstay.)
I am in the real estate investment business. Increasingly I find investors staying away from investing in rental properties and neighborhoods perceived to have illegal drug problems. Investors more frequently state police can too easily forfeit their real estate because of one tenant's illegal activity at a rental property, e.g., selling drugs, even when it is unknown to the owner. Consequently investors' fears of forfeiture are depressing property values in certain neighborhoods and cities, driving downward the property tax base needed for tax revenues to support the infrastructure of the community. Consider: As governments more and more force landlords to act as attorney generals policing the lives of their tenants, and hold landlords accountable to police for not stopping their tenants from committing unknown or foreseen illegal acts, more investors say, "who needs this!" Constant police raids in certain neighborhoods may actually result in a financial net loss to a community where investors retreat, causing assessed property values and property taxes to decline. There is little incentive for investors to spend money upgrading rental property in neighborhoods where drug problems exist if the police are targeting rental property for asset forfeiture.
I think that pretty much speaks for itself. But it would be a shame to stop there. So, a few links:
  • click here to read how the Fulton County (Atlanta, GA) DA's office spent forfeiture funds on banquets and balloons and a superman costume;
  • click here to read about the Austin, Texas police department's criminal inquiry into possible misuse of forfeiture funds; and
  • click here for a recent report over what is basically an act of theft via forfeiture committed by New Mexico police. (Make them stop, Gov. Richardson!)
Read our asset forfeiture reporting on an ongoing basis here, or subscribe to it by RSS here. And of course, check out the organization Forfeiture Endangers American Rights (FEAR).
United States

Law Enforcement: Asset Forfeiture Funds Spent on Banquets, Balls, and Balloons in Atlanta

A routine audit of the Fulton County (Atlanta) district attorney's office has turned up questionable spending of money seized from drug suspects under asset forfeiture laws. Less than a month ago, similar apparent abuses were uncovered in the Austin, Texas, police department.

According to auditor's reports, almost one-third of the 376 checks written out of the asset forfeiture account in 2006 were either questionable or not allowed under federal guidelines. Those questionable expenses totaled more than $2 million.

Under federal asset forfeiture laws, money seized by the feds and handed over to state law enforcement may only be used for law enforcement purposes. But District Attorney Paul Howard has a very expansive view of just what that means. According to auditor's reports gathered by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution under the state open records act, Howard's asset forfeiture fund spending included:

  • $1,500 to sponsor the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys;
  • $5,150 for benefits, dinners, football tickets, fundraisers, and balls sponsored by various civic organizations -- none of them directly related to law enforcement;
  • $5,500 spent on rent and catering for a staff Christmas party;
  • $89 for a Superman-style red cape with "Super Lawyer" printed on it that an assistant prosecutor was encouraged to wear at the Christmas party;
  • $150 for a dinner party to celebrate the conviction of a murderer; and
  • $9,100 for Howard's perfect attendance program for students in Atlanta's public elementary schools.

DA Howard defended the expenditures, saying they were tools for fighting crime and boosting office morale. "We cannot pay our employees bonuses. We can't pay overtime," Howard said. "I tried to come up with ways to increase morale."

But county auditors questioned the propriety of the spending, saying Howard may have violated federal asset forfeiture rules. Auditors also raised flags about Howard's mixing various types of funding in the same account.

"This account has several types of funds commingled," the auditor wrote. "These commingled funds include victim witness funds, federal equitable sharing agreement funds and regular operating funds. Commingling these funds is strictly prohibited since all these funds are for a specific purpose."

Howard said there is nothing wrong with putting money from different sources in one account. "We tracked the money," Howard said. "The money was not misused." But he has since created separate accounts for the different funds.

The auditor's reports are not final. They are now being reviewed by a private auditor.

Asset Forfeiture: ACLU Sues DEA Over Trucker's Seized Cash

A trucker who lost nearly $24,000 in cash after it was seized by a New Mexico police officer and turned over to the DEA is suing the federal drug agency to get his money back. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) New Mexico affiliate is handling the case. It filed the lawsuit on August 23.

On August 8, truck driver Anastasio Prieto of El Paso was stopped at a weigh station on US Highway 54 just north of El Paso. A police officer there asked for permission to search the truck for "needles or cash in excess of $10,000," according to the ACLU. Prieto said he didn't have any needles, but he was carrying $23,700 in cash. Officers seized the money and turned it over to the DEA, while DEA agents photographed and fingerprinted Prieto despite his objections, then released him without charges after he had been detained for six hours. Border Patrol agents sicced drug-sniffing dogs on his truck, but found no evidence of illegal drugs.

In the lawsuit, the ACLU argues that the state police and DEA violated Prieto's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful search and seizure by taking his money without cause and by fingerprinting and photographing him. "Mere possession of approximately $23,700 does not establish probable cause for a search or seizure," the lawsuit said.

DEA agents told Prieto that to get his money back, he would have to prove it was his and not the proceeds of illegal drug sales. That process could take up to a year, the agents said.

But New Mexico ACLU state director Peter Simonson told the Associated Press Prieto needed his money now to pay bills. "The government took Mr. Prieto's money as surely as if he had been robbed on a street corner at night," Simonson said. "In fact, being robbed might have been better. At least then the police would have treated him as the victim of a crime instead of as a perpetrator."

According to the lawsuit, Prieto does not like banks and carries his savings as cash.

That's not a crime. But what the DEA did to him is, or should be.

Asset Forfeiture: Austin Police Use of Seized Funds Probed

Austin, Texas, Police Chief Art Acevedo announced August 9 that a criminal inquiry is underway into how Austin police spent money seized in the past five years and whether they violated rules governing how such funds are to be used. Acevedo, who has been on the job less than a month, said he wants to look closely at several payments made from the millions of dollars seized by the department during that period.

The probe comes after the Austin American-Statesman reviewed thousands of transactions obtained under Texas open public records laws. The review found that much of the money was spent on vehicle maintenance, training, and equipment purchases, but not all of it. Other spending included:

  • $13,000 in college tuition for a police commander.
  • $12,025 in October 2002 for an awards banquet.
  • $3,314 for clothing for the department's running team in November 2005.
  • $1,895 in May 2005 for a "race clock."
  • $625 in October 2001 for coffee mugs.
Austin police -- busted?
A memo prepared for Chief Acevedo found more problems. It said the department had used seized funds in 2005 and 2006 to balance its budget. In fact, the department's seized funds account began running a negative balance in June because the money had been spent to balance the 2006 budget.

Both the state of Texas and the federal Justice Department have rules regarding how seized funds may be spent. The feds, for instance, bar funds from being used to pay salaries or supplant existing funding or from spending such funds before they are actually received. Texas law says that money can be used for salaries, overtime, officer training and investigative equipment and supplies. Other items may be bought with state funds only if used by officers in "direct law enforcement duties."

Acevedo said he had hoped to reveal the results of an internal investigation last week, but that was derailed when it morphed into a criminal investigation.

Search and Seizure: California Supreme Court Just Says No to Seizures of Drug Buyers' Cars

In a closely divided 4-3 opinion, the California Supreme Court has ruled that local governments cannot seize the vehicles of people arrested on suspicion of buying drugs or using prostitutes, the two most common offenses targeted by local crime-fighting forfeiture ordinances in a number of California cities. The ordinances aim to reduce drug selling and street prostitution by seizing the cars of customers and thus deterring future customers.

The ruling came in O'Connell v. City of Stockton, where a local woman, Kelly O'Connell, challenged the city's "Seizure and Forfeiture of Nuisance Vehicles" ordinance. In a legal argument that was more about state versus municipal power than drug offenses or selling sex, the court held that only the state can set punishments for offenses under the state criminal code -- not municipalities.

Nor, the court held, can cities mete out punishments for state law violations that are harsher than the state laws themselves. In some California cases, drivers seeking to buy marijuana -- small-time pot possession is a $100 ticket in California -- have had their vehicles seized.

The punishment of drug and prostitution offenses "are matters of statewide concern that our Legislature has comprehensively addressed... leaving no room for further regulations at the local level," the court ruled.

While it was Stockton's ordinance that was challenged, the court's decision invalidates similar ordinances that began with Oakland, the first California city to adopt forfeiture laws in 1998. Since then, Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento, San Bernardino, Riverside, Inglewood and Ontario, among others, have enacted similar ordinances.

After the decision was announced, attorney Mark Clausen, who represented O'Connell, told the Los Angeles Times that "several thousand" vehicles had been seized throughout the state, with most drivers getting their cars back after paying "impound fees" of up to $2,000.

"These ordinances were just a public relations stunt," Clausen said.

But prosecutors and law enforcement officials told the Times seizing vehicles was a valuable law enforcement tactic. "Obviously, this is a very valuable tool for us," said Los Angeles Police Department Cmdr. Harlan Ward. "It allows us to take care of community issues. It's a tool we use to work on the quality-of-life issues that affect neighborhoods."

The effect of the decision will be far-reaching, said John Lovell, counsel for the California Police Chiefs Association. "Forfeiture no longer appears to be an option," he said.

Some Good Forfeiture News

Some good news on the forfeiture front, via TalkLeft: California's Supreme Court has found that city ordinances allowing the seizure and forfeiture of vehicles that police claim were used in the commission of minor crime's (including drug possession) are not authorized by state law, overturning a law passed by the city of Stockton. We'd rather they threw the law out because it's disproportionate and corrupting of police agencies, and because taking people's cars is theft. But we'll take it.
Stockton, CA
United States

New drug-war tack in Richmond, Asset-forfeiture law will be used to seize homes of dealers

Richmond, VA
United States
Richmond Times-Dispatch (VA)

Drug War Issues

Criminal JusticeAsset Forfeiture, Collateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Court Rulings, Drug Courts, Due Process, Felony Disenfranchisement, Incarceration, Policing (2011 Drug War Killings, 2012 Drug War Killings, 2013 Drug War Killings, 2014 Drug War Killings, 2015 Drug War Killings, 2016 Drug War Killings, 2017 Drug War Killings, Arrests, Eradication, Informants, Interdiction, Lowest Priority Policies, Police Corruption, Police Raids, Profiling, Search and Seizure, SWAT/Paramilitarization, Task Forces, Undercover Work), Probation or Parole, Prosecution, Reentry/Rehabilitation, Sentencing (Alternatives to Incarceration, Clemency and Pardon, Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity, Death Penalty, Decriminalization, Defelonization, Drug Free Zones, Mandatory Minimums, Rockefeller Drug Laws, Sentencing Guidelines)CultureArt, Celebrities, Counter-Culture, Music, Poetry/Literature, Television, TheaterDrug UseParaphernalia, Vaping, ViolenceIntersecting IssuesCollateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Violence, Border, Budgets/Taxes/Economics, Business, Civil Rights, Driving, Economics, Education (College Aid), Employment, Environment, Families, Free Speech, Gun Policy, Human Rights, Immigration, Militarization, Money Laundering, Pregnancy, Privacy (Search and Seizure, Drug Testing), Race, Religion, Science, Sports, Women's IssuesMarijuana PolicyGateway Theory, Hemp, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Marijuana Industry, Medical MarijuanaMedicineMedical Marijuana, Science of Drugs, Under-treatment of PainPublic HealthAddiction, Addiction Treatment (Science of Drugs), Drug Education, Drug Prevention, Drug-Related AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis C, Harm Reduction (Methadone & Other Opiate Maintenance, Needle Exchange, Overdose Prevention, Pill Testing, Safer Injection Sites)Source and Transit CountriesAndean Drug War, Coca, Hashish, Mexican Drug War, Opium ProductionSpecific DrugsAlcohol, Ayahuasca, Cocaine (Crack Cocaine), Ecstasy, Heroin, Ibogaine, ketamine, Khat, Kratom, Marijuana (Gateway Theory, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Medical Marijuana, Hashish), Methamphetamine, New Synthetic Drugs (Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Stimulants), Nicotine, Prescription Opiates (Fentanyl, Oxycontin), Psilocybin / Magic Mushrooms, Psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Salvia Divinorum)YouthGrade School, Post-Secondary School, Raves, Secondary School