– Stop and seize (The Washington Post, Sep 6, 2014):
Aggressive police take hundreds of millions of dollars from motorists not charged with crimes
After the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the government called on police to become the eyes and ears of homeland security on America’s highways.
Local officers, county deputies and state troopers were encouraged to act more aggressively in searching for suspicious people, drugs and other contraband. The departments of Homeland Security and Justice spent millions on police training.
The effort succeeded, but it had an impact that has been largely hidden from public view: the spread of an aggressive brand of policing that has spurred the seizure of hundreds of millions of dollars in cash from motorists and others not charged with crimes, a Washington Post investigation found. Thousands of people have been forced to fight legal battles that can last more than a year to get their money back.
Behind the rise in seizures is a little-known cottage industry of private police-training firms that teach the techniques of “highway interdiction” to departments across the country.
One of those firms created a private intelligence network known as Black Asphalt Electronic Networking & Notification System that enabled police nationwide to share detailed reports about American motorists — criminals and the innocent alike — including their Social Security numbers, addresses and identifying tattoos, as well as hunches about which drivers to stop.
Many of the reports have been funneled to federal agencies and fusion centers as part of the government’s burgeoning law enforcement intelligence systems — despite warnings from state and federal authorities that the information could violate privacy and constitutional protections.
A thriving subculture of road officers on the network now competes to see who can seize the most cash and contraband, describing their exploits in the network’s chat rooms and sharing “trophy shots” of money and drugs. Some police advocate highway interdiction as a way of raising revenue for cash-strapped municipalities.
“All of our home towns are sitting on a tax-liberating gold mine,” Deputy Ron Hain of Kane County, Ill., wrote in a self-published book under a pseudonym. Hain is a marketing specialist for Desert Snow, a leading interdiction training firm based in Guthrie, Okla., whose founders also created Black Asphalt.
Hain’s book calls for “turning our police forces into present-day Robin Hoods.”
Cash seizures can be made under state or federal civil law. One of the primary ways police departments are able to seize money and share in the proceeds at the federal level is through a long-standing Justice Department civil asset forfeiture program known as Equitable Sharing. Asset forfeiture is an extraordinarily powerful law enforcement tool that allows the government to take cash and property without pressing criminal charges and then requires the owners to prove their possessions were legally acquired.
The practice has been controversial since its inception at the height of the drug war more than three decades ago, and its abuses have been the subject of journalistic exposés and congressional hearings. But unexplored until now is the role of the federal government and the private police trainers in encouraging officers to target cash on the nation’s highways since 9/11.
“Those laws were meant to take a guy out for selling $1 million in cocaine or who was trying to launder large amounts of money,” said Mark Overton, the police chief in Bal Harbour, Fla., who once oversaw a federal drug task force in South Florida. “It was never meant for a street cop to take a few thousand dollars from a driver by the side of the road.”
To examine the scope of asset forfeiture since the terror attacks, The Post analyzed a database of hundreds of thousands of seizure records at the Justice Department, reviewed hundreds of federal court cases, obtained internal records from training firms and interviewed scores of police officers, prosecutors and motorists.
The Post found:
- There have been 61,998 cash seizures made on highways and elsewhere since 9/11 without search warrants or indictments through the Equitable Sharing Program, totaling more than $2.5 billion. State and local authorities kept more than $1.7 billion of that while Justice, Homeland Security and other federal agencies received $800 million. Half of the seizures were below $8,800.
- Only a sixth of the seizures were legally challenged, in part because of the costs of legal action against the government. But in 41 percent of cases — 4,455 — where there was a challenge, the government agreed to return money. The appeals process took more than a year in 40 percent of those cases and often required owners of the cash to sign agreements not to sue police over the seizures.
- Hundreds of state and local departments and drug task forces appear to rely on seized cash, despite a federal ban on the money to pay salaries or otherwise support budgets. The Post found that 298 departments and 210 task forces have seized the equivalent of 20 percent or more of their annual budgets since 2008.
- Agencies with police known to be participating in the Black Asphalt intelligence network have seen a 32 percent jump in seizures beginning in 2005, three times the rate of other police departments. Desert Snow-trained officers reported more than $427 million in cash seizures during highway stops in just one five-year period, according to company officials. More than 25,000 police have belonged to Black Asphalt, company officials said.
- State law enforcement officials in Iowa and Kansas prohibited the use of the Black Asphalt network because of concerns that it might not be a legal law enforcement tool. A federal prosecutor in Nebraska warned that Black Asphalt reports could violate laws governing civil liberties, the handling of sensitive law enforcement information and the disclosure of pretrial information to defendants. But officials at Justice and Homeland Security continued to use it.
Justice spokesman Peter Carr said the department had no comment on The Post’s overall findings. But he said the department has a compliance review process in place for the Equitable Sharing Program and attorneys for federal agencies must review the seizures before they are “adopted” for inclusion in the program.
“Adoptions of state and local seizures — when a state and local law enforcement agency requests a federal seizing agency to adopt a state and local seizure for federal forfeiture — represent an average of only 3 percent of the total forfeiture amount since 2007,” Carr said.