Use A Landline To Talk About Criminal Activity? The Government Can Seize The House Around It

from the extreme-home-takeover dept

The Intercept has obtained a leaked asset forfeiture guide for seizures performed by ICE. (It has, unfortunately, chosen not to share the original document. Then again, the last non-Snowden leak it published appears to have helped out the document’s source.)

For those familiar with the process of civil asset forfeiture, the contents of the guide are mostly unsurprising. Despite the document dating back to 2010, ICE did confirm the version seen by The Intercept is its most recent guidance. ICE is allowed to seize property without bringing charges or securing convictions — something still permitted by federal law (your state laws may vary) and greatly encouraged by the new head of the DOJ, Jeff Sessions.

What is surprising about the document is how much emphasis is placed on the seizure of real estate. As Ryan Devereaux and Spencer Woodman point out, ICE’s forfeiture teams are pretty much property flippers, albeit ones working with the undeniable advantage of making zero initial investment.

Much of the handbook is devoted to describing the process of seizing real estate — homes, farms, and businesses — and it is in these pages that the dual priorities of financial gain and law enforcement objectives become most apparent. While the handbook contains little discussion on how to utilize asset forfeiture to maximize crime-fighting outcomes, there is extensive discussion of how agents should painstakingly determine whether a property is valuable enough to make seizure worthwhile


More than a dozen pages of the document describe an important — if perhaps surprising — role of AIRG agents: as real estate appraisers. Using the example of “houses used to store narcotics or harbor illegal aliens,” the manual walks agents through a comprehensive process of assessing homes and landed properties to determine the financial appeal to ICE of acquiring such real estate.

If ICE can obtain a warrant to search the property it plans to seize, it will usually send a private real estate appraiser along during the search. AIRG [Asset Identification and Removal Group] agents apparently ballpark property values using public databases — something that tells ICE whether or not it should move forward with the forfeiture.

As is the case in most civil forfeiture operations, the connecting tissue of criminal activity doesn’t need to be much more than gossamer-thin.

The manual instructs agents seeking to seize a property to work with confidential informants, scour tax records, and even obtain an interception warrant to determine whether “a telephone located on the property was used to plan or discuss criminal activity” in order to justify seizing the property.

You would think the phone would be the “guilty” property — at least as far as you can follow forfeiture’s twisted logic. Apparently not. According to ICE’s guidance, the entire house around the landline is equally culpable.

The handbook also points out civil forfeiture is preferable to criminal forfeiture, thanks to its general disdain for due process. The key factor is the conviction itself — something you’d think a law enforcement agency would value over seized property. In criminal proceedings, seized property is generally returned if the charges don’t stick. Not so with civil forfeiture. ICE’s guidance says when in doubt, go civil. That way the agency may still keep something, even if the alleged perp goes free.

ICE is by far the biggest contributor to the DHS’s total forfeiture take. This can be expected to grow with the new administration’s intense focus on illegal immigration. As with any government program experiencing sudden growth, one can expect an exponential leap in abuse.

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Comments on “Use A Landline To Talk About Criminal Activity? The Government Can Seize The House Around It”

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JoeDetroit (profile) says:

Re: Sheesh. It's not the phone, it's the "criminal activity".

Are you trolling or do you not understand? Civil asset forfeiture is not about catching criminals. It’s about getting money. Money from criminals? Maybe, but there is a presumption of innocence until convicted by an impartial jury. At least that is what our Constitution says. This is about taking cash & property with no conviction. Good luck getting it back.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Sheesh. It's not the phone, it's the "criminal activity".

Typical AC “logic” – being against seizing property after someone has been caught means you’re against them being caught. We won’t even get on to the fact that such seizures often happen if someone is merely suspected or even totally innocent, it makes no sense on the face of the assertion.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Sheesh. It's not the phone, it's the "criminal activity".

I’m not worried at all that criminals might be caught.

I’m worried that innocent people will be “caught”.

Given how the police have poisoned the public trust of police, this seems like a justified concern. Given how the FBI likes to entrap people into committing a crime by putting enough pressure on them until they commit the crime.

TripMN says:

Perverted incentives lead to perverted outcomes

This would be akin to adding a section to a teacher’s handbook about how to assess student’s property to make sure you only confiscate the most expensive items, whether it caused a nuisance in class or not.

This is not just crass and disgusting, but it automatically forces the employees’ attention away from the supposed purpose of their job.

Perverse incentives indeed.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: I am shocked...

Bizarro Robin Hood strikes again!

I can just imagine my favorite GOP politicians wearing super hero spandex outfits … (Ewwww – gross!) …. going around this Halloween stealing candy from little children while happily chanting their campaign slogans. What a wonderful evening that would be, then follow it up with cigars and brandy around the bonfire where they are burning witches.

hegemon13 says:

Re: I am shocked...

“…championed by our increasingly authoritarian government…”

Fixed that for you. We’ve had 16 years of democratic presidents since the “war on drugs” began, and they did nothing to back off on it. And yes, this is one area the president absolutely has control, given he controls the DOJ. (Okay, Obama did promise not to interfere in states that legalized marijuana…until he did it anyway.)

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: I am shocked...

42 years of necon government. Each regime may have had its own flavour but, at heart, they were neocon. Think about it: trickle-down economics didn’t grind to a halt under Clinton or Obama, it just slowed down a little.

Interventionist foreign policies didn’t end under either Clinton or Obama.

So… how do you like your neocon government… with or without social programs? That is why partisanship is pointless. Our choices are limited to Kang or Kodos until we are willing to campaign for third party candidates to the point where they’ve got a chance of getting in to office. And that will only happen when we stop running screaming from the socialist boogeyman and accept that a mixed economy is the only one that works for all of us.

McGyver (profile) says:

Not for the TL;DR crowd...

Just in case some people don’t understand the current difference between civil and criminal forfeiture…
“Civil forfeiture in the United States, also called civil asset forfeiture or civil judicial forfeiture or occasionally civil seizure, is a controversial legal process in which law enforcement officers take assets from persons suspected of involvement with crime or illegal activity without necessarily charging the owners with wrongdoing. While civil procedure, as opposed to criminal procedure, generally involves a dispute between two private citizens, civil forfeiture involves a dispute between law enforcement and property such as a pile of cash or a house or a boat, such that the thing is suspected of being involved in a crime. To get back the seized property, owners must prove it was not involved in criminal activity. Sometimes it can mean a threat to seize property as well as the act of seizure itself. In 2015, Eric Holder ended ‘adoptive forfeiture’ which occurred “when a state or local law enforcement agency seizes property pursuant to state law and requests that a federal agency take the seized asset and forfeit it under federal law” due to abuse. States proceeded to curtail the powers of police to seize assets, actions by the justice department in July 2017 have sought to reinstate police seizure powers to raise funding for federal agencies and local law enforcement.”
This practice goes against section one of the 14th amendment: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”….
You see the part about “not depriving any person of their property without due process of the laws”?
I suppose the big bone of contention to those advocating for law enforcement’s “right” to unrestricted power to confiscate property at their discretion is that they don’t view most of those whose rights are being violated, as “persons”…
Sure makes silly things like violating the constitution easy to ignore or even cheer on, when you feel the odds of you being on the receiving end are pretty slim…
Until it happens to you or someone you know.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

“it will usually send a private real estate appraiser along during the search.”

Dear Congress, do you need a larger clue bat to hit you in the face?
This isn’t about stopping anything, this is all about stealing property under the guise of the law.
Millions of dollars in cash taken from travellers, in small amounts not the huge nacro busts they always hint at.
Millions of dollars in cars that magically end up sold to the cops cheap or ruined as they use the vehicle while the real owner has to fight in court to get back their property taken with no trial.
Millions of dollars in real estate snapped up and flipped (betcha they have friends in those industries) because there was a phone call where someone said something an agent decided described a crime? (I draw your attention to a recent court document where the Judge mentioned going to Costco because that magically became code for getting drugs in an agents mind.)

They are a gang with badges.
Thats a nice car your mom has, it would be a pity for us to take it… how about you become our CI (and end up dead because we suck as keeping forced CI’s safe.) to avoid losing it.

Rule of law, you can scream how you made this legal.
Please explain how removing due process can happen in this country?
Please explain how robbing a teen of his college fund stopped drug dealers? (Especially in light of y’all having passed that law that made it easier for the dumping of Oxys onto the market which magically made your donors RICH as citizens moved onto heroin & are dying in droves.)

This “law” doesn’t do anything like is claimed & you can’t get an accurate report to see that they didn’t take stuff from a cartel, they stole a farm from an 80 yr old because he rented a house on the property to someone who grew pot without his knowledge but his entire livelihood was fair game to take over 1 pot plant.

Personanongrata says:

Who are the Real Criminals?

The key factor is the conviction itself — something you’d think a law enforcement agency would value over seized property.

The problem is you are judging the US government’s actions with the perspective of a rational person.

A legitimate law enforcement agency would value a conviction over seizing property.

Unfortunately for American citizens when the US government seizes (ie steals) a persons property without due process, through what is labeled civil asset forfeiture, the government fully exposes itself for what it truly is – a criminal enterprise – which operates under the guise of a law enforcement agency.

Anonymous Coward says:

I can almost see it.

What they’re doing is claiming that criminal activities were discussed within the house and using the phone records as proof that said discussions took place within the house. But I have to agree that what’s happening is entirely too much. Much as some management people measuring the wrong thing and then acting confused when the results are the thing they’re measuring being fantastic while the rest of the business goes down the drain, the same thing is happening with the “justice” system where they’re measuring how many assets have been seized while ignoring the actual fact that justice isn’t happening.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: I can almost see it.

If that is the case, then people will start using cell phones,using a GPS jammer to prevent even the goverment’s “hidden” GPS from working, where phone records would not be able to get your GPS coordinates.

While using a GPS jammer can incur a civil fine from the FCC, if they they find out, there are currently no criminal penalties that would apply here. The worst that can happen is a penalty for jamming a radio signal, but there is no criminal statute that would apply for preventing investigators from knowing where you were when you placed that call.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: I can almost see it.

Under civil asset procedures, they just have to accuse you of being at home and carrying out criminal activity, they do not have to prove it. Also, the phone towers will locate you to at least the area of your home.

Also note, property recovery requires proving that it was not used in the commission of a crime, and so not being able to prove you were elsewhere at the time a crime was committed is to your disadvantage.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: I can almost see it.

One way to do it would be use one of these jammers that can jam data, but not voice. That would prevent you from being located.

I know this, because I had a neighbor in my apartment who would use one of those jammers at dinner time, to keep his kids from texting or using mobile Internet during family dinner time.

Voice communications still worked. Those of us living in the building could still make voice calls, but we could not send/receive texts, use cellular Internet, or update any apps.

The father of this family wanted to keep his kids from texting or using mobile Internet at dinnr time, so he bought a selective jammer that could jam data and text, but not voice.

Jamming VOICE communciations is illegal, but jamming data is NOT illegal, and that is exactly what this guy did.

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