WASHINGTON – The Drug Enforcement Administration seizes cash that has no connection to any broader criminal investigation, potentially violating the civil liberties of those whose money is taken, a Department of Justice Inspector General report concluded.
In a 74-page report released Wednesday, the inspector general faulted the DEA for not measuring how its asset forfeiture practices benefit criminal investigations and said in a sample of 100 cash seizures its investigators reviewed, the agency could only verify that 44 were even related to criminal investigations.
In one example cited in the report, the DEA took more than $70,000 from a piece of checked luggage without doing any more investigation or attempting to question the owner at the airport – instead simply putting a receipt in the bag and sending it on to its final destination.
“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 inspector general wrote.
In a memo responding to the findings, Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth 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. 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.”
Blanco also wrote that the inspector general report “fails to acknowledge the scale of the problem that asset forfeiture 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.”
Civil liberties advocates have long criticized the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture program, which allows law enforcement to take people’s money and other property without judicial oversight. The program is lucrative, and the department uses what it seizes to help crime victims and state and local law enforcement. According to the inspector general’s report, the department has doled out $4 billion in forfeited funds to crime victims since fiscal year 2000 and has provided over $6 billion to state and local law enforcement.
U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the inspector general’s report “makes it clear that asset forfeiture is in desperate need of reform.”
“While asset forfeiture is a useful law enforcement tool to fight crime, the current lack of oversight and training poses dangers to Americans’ civil liberties,” he said.
That DEA agents seized cash without connection to a larger criminal investigation does not mean they had no basis to take the money. The inspector general wrote that agents often had cause to be suspicious because drug-sniffing dogs picked up possible narcotics residue, or money was found hidden in secret compartments in luggage. But according to the DEA agents’ manual, seizures should take place “incident to a major drug investigation.” That did not always appear to be the case in the materials reviewed by the inspector general.
The inspector general criticized the department for not developing a method 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.” It focused particular criticism on the DEA, which it said was responsible for 80 percent of the department’s cash seizures from fiscal year 2007 to fiscal year 2016. The report said that $3.2 billion was forfeited administratively. That means the agency, rather than a judge, determined the DEA should be allowed to take control of the money, though such a process is only triggered when the person from whom the property was seized does not object.
The inspector general also criticized the department for not developing a systematic way to check if seizures were connected to an investigation, aside from reviewing case files individually.
“When seizure and administrative forfeitures do not ultimately advance an investigation or prosecution, law enforcement creates the appearance, and risks the reality, that it is more interested in seizing and forfeiting cash than advancing an investigation or prosecution,” the inspector general wrote.
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. Asked for comment on the report, a Justice Department spokesman pointed to Blanco’s written response.