The DOJ's Inspector General has just released its latest report [PDF] on federal civil asset forfeiture. It's not pretty and it confirms many of the criticisms of the program. Law enforcement agencies -- including the DEA, which is responsible for nearly 80% of the $28 billion of forfeited assets over the past decade -- claim the program is key in the dismantling of criminal organizations.
However, the facts don't back up this claim.
The report opens by pointing out agencies involved in civil forfeiture seem completely uninterested in the actual pursuit of criminals. One multimillion dollar seizure resulted in nothing more than millions of dollars being seized. Any criminals associated with the cash are presumably still out there committing criminal acts.
Based on intelligence collected from the money laundering operations, other federal law enforcement agencies conducted additional investigative work which, according to the task force, resulted in the arrest of 84 individuals and the seizure of approximately $49 million. The OIG found that the BHPD received over $6 million in revenue derived, in part, from equitable sharing payments related to these seizures. However, according to a task force official, the task force did not file a single criminal indictment related to its money laundering investigative operations.
From which the OIG can only draw this conclusion:
Such outcomes can raise questions about whether seizures are intended to serve legitimate law enforcement interests or to bolster law enforcement budgets.
The report focuses on the DEA, as it's responsible for most of the forfeitures. Again, the claim that forfeiture is an effective crime-fighting tool isn't backed up by any data the DEA has on hand. In fact, the DEA seems uninterested in self-assessment or anything else that might undermine its claims of crime-fighting effectiveness. As the OIG points out, the DEA has no idea whether civil asset forfeiture actually works.
We found that the Department and its investigative components do not use aggregate data to evaluate fully and oversee their seizure operations, or to determine whether seizures benefit criminal investigations or the extent to which they may pose potential risks to civil liberties. The Department and its components can determine how often seizure and forfeiture advance or relate to criminal investigations only through a manual, case-by-case review of component case management systems
As is noted here, the DEA is not only uninterested in quantifying the results of forfeiture, but has expressed zero concern about potential civil liberties violations. The DEA basically doesn't know if forfeiture is good or evil. All it cares about is the money. It is so focused on seizing cash, it's set up a network of informants in airports, trains stations, bus deposts, and post offices who do little more than notify the agency any time they come across currency.
The DEA also does little to justify the initiation of seizures. The report notes nearly every seizure examined began with something barely approaching reasonable suspicion.
[W]e found that 85 of the 100 seizures occurred as a result of interdiction operations at transportation facilities, such as airports, parcel distribution centers, train stations, and bus terminals, or as a result of a highway interdiction or traffic stop. All but 6 of the 85 encounters or situations that led to interdiction seizures were initiated on the observations and immediate judgment of DEA agents and task force officers absent any pre-existing intelligence of a specific drug crime (the remaining six were based on preexisting intelligence).
Further, a majority of the seizures examined were seemingly carried out for no other reason than to seize cash.
[T]he DEA could verify that only 44 of the 100 seizures, and only 29 of the 85 interdiction seizures, had (1) advanced or been related to ongoing investigations, (2) resulted in the initiation of new investigations, (3) led to arrests, or (4) led to prosecutions.
Another seizure detailed in the report backs up the OIG's conclusions: the DEA is interested in cash and little else.
After Transportation Security Administration agents discovered U.S. currency artfully concealed in a manufactured compartment within the pulley of a checked bag, a task force officer assigned to a DEA group responded with a drug dog to assess the bag. The dog positively alerted to the presence of a controlled substance, and the group seized $70,460 concealed in the bag and its pulley. According to the DEA’s documentation, the group that effected the seizure had no immediate way to contact the traveler who had checked the bag; the traveler already had boarded the plane and the ticket had not been purchased through the airline. No effort was made to alert law enforcement in the arrival airport to stop and speak with the passenger claiming the bag; rather, a DEA agent placed a receipt for the currency and DEA contact information inside the bag and the airline sent the bag to its final destination.
The person who had purchased the ticket was different from the traveler but shared the same address. The DEA sent a notice of seizure to the address; but, after receiving no response, the DEA took no further action, such as following up, in person, at the known address to interview the traveler or the person who purchased the ticket. CATS records indicate that this seizure did not receive any petitions or claims and that it ultimately resulted in an administrative forfeiture of $70,460 to the federal government.
This is a repeated pattern with DEA forfeitures, and the OIG doesn't care for it.
Even accepting that the circumstances surrounding the discovery of this large volume of concealed currency justified law enforcement suspicion and seizure, we find it troubling that the DEA would make an administrative forfeiture without attempting to advance an investigation, especially considering that the DEA had opportunities to contact the potential owners of the currency instead of simply providing written notice of the seizure.
The OIG recommends all DOJ law enforcement components (but especially the DEA) engage in better recordkeeping and do more to assess whether seizures are actually having an impact on criminal activity. The DEA has rejected this recommendation. It would rather continue in the same fashion it has for years: lots of seizures, few arrests, and even fewer convictions. As the DEA sees it, the OIG's negative report is the result of the Inspector General being unable to grasp the complexities of the Drug War.
The Criminal Division’s response to the formal draft of our report (attached as Appendix 4) suggests that the OIG does not fully appreciate the importance of asset seizure and forfeiture in addressing our nation’s crime and illegal drug problems.
The OIG begs to differ, pointing out that a "well-run" program can be effective in fighting criminal activity. The problem here is that the program isn't well-run, especially in the DEA's case. The DEA can't demonstrate why forfeiture is effective, but claims it's the OIG that can't handle the "complexities" of the program. What the DEA wants is the same level of oversight it's had for years: nearly none. Periodic reviews by the Inspector General keep pointing to problems and indicators of abuse. Each one is greeted by DOJ Criminal Division indifference. The component agencies care little for the rights of Americans, especially if they're carrying seizable cash.
It's an ends-justifies-the-means situation, but the DEA doesn't even care whether the "ends" are even being met. It just likes the "means," which pads its ample budget and allows the government to seize billions in cash with minimal effort.