License to Steal: The Civil Forfeiture Implications of the DEA-NSA Spy Program

Note: A version of this post was originally published August 5, 2013. 

The revelations that the DEA has a secret Special Operations Division (SOD) that uses NSA and CIA intelligence to spy on Americans suspected of drug crimes should be in taken in context of the DEA’s use of federal civil forfeiture to profit from drug prohibition. Reuters reports:

A secretive U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration unit is funneling information from intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, informants and a massive database of telephone records to authorities across the nation to help them launch criminal investigations of Americans.

Although these cases rarely involve national security issues, documents reviewed by Reuters show that law enforcement agents have been directed to conceal how such investigations truly begin – not only from defense lawyers but also sometimes from prosecutors and judges.

The undated documents show that federal agents are trained to “recreate” the investigative trail to effectively cover up where the information originated, a practice that some experts say violates a defendant’s Constitutional right to a fair trial. If defendants don’t know how an investigation began, they cannot know to ask to review potential sources of exculpatory evidence – information that could reveal entrapment, mistakes or biased witnesses. (John Shiffman and Kristina Cooke, U.S. directs agents to cover up program used to investigate Americans, Reuters, 5 Aug. 2013)

AFR Research Director Scott Meiner notes that:

“While the techniques described are universally bad, they carry special concern in forfeiture cases–where intelligence tips of a driver carrying cash (for legitimate or illegitimate reasons) compels officers to create parallel constructions to obfuscate from the courts and the public the real reasons why drivers are pulled over: so the department can score forfeiture proceeds.”, said AFR Research Director Scott Meiner.  “Informed police departments can use SOD tips to pull over cars that they know have cash (whether it is legitimate or illegitimate) and then apply a K9 sniff (with seeming random innocuity) and find the cash that they knew existed. A positive sniff (which is an inevitably positive sniff given what we know of cuing errors) validates the purported connection to drugs and thus justifies the forfeiture to the courts.”

This is particularly problematic in civil asset forfeiture, as federal law allows the seizure and forfeiture of property in a civil, not criminal process, and there is no federal requirement that criminal charges be filed when the government is interested in a civil forfeiture.

More broadly, the use of SOD to spy on Americans by the DEA calls into question not just the use of asset forfeiture in highway stops, but also in other aggressive forfeiture-related tactics such as the use of confidential informants and forfeiture “specialists” who hunt for property to seize. Two recent cases are instructive in this regard:

  • The 2008 “reactivation” of DEA informant Anthony Chambers, who was caught lying under oath in court at least 16 times and was fired by the agency in 2000. Chambers is known as the “highest-paid snitch” in DEA history and is responsible for over 445 drug arrests, as well as millions of dollars seized by the DEA and other agencies.
  • The attempted forfeiture of Russ Caswell’s motel property in Tewksbury, MA. The DEA attempted to seize the Motel Caswell after Vincent T. Kelly, a DEA forfeiture specialist, claimed he had found reports of drug crimes happening at the Motel Caswell in newspapers going back over a decade. It seems more than a little odd that DEA forfeiture specialists read decades-old newspaper articles looking for property to seize; is it possible that this justification for the Motel Caswell forfeiture is a “parallel construction”?

Indeed, asset forfeiture is now a major revenue stream for federal law enforcement. Sarah Stillman reports in the New Yorker:

Forfeiture in its modern form began with federal statutes enacted in the nineteen-seventies and aimed not at waitresses and janitors but at organized-crime bosses and drug lords. Law-enforcement officers were empowered to seize money and goods tied to the production of illegal drugs. Later amendments allowed the seizure of anything thought to have been purchased with tainted funds, whether or not it was connected to the commission of a crime. Even then, forfeiture remained an infrequent resort until 1984, when Congress passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act. It established a special fund that turned over proceeds from forfeitures to the law-enforcement agencies responsible for them. Local police who provided federal assistance were rewarded with a large percentage of the proceeds, through a program called Equitable Sharing. Soon states were crafting their own forfeiture laws.

Revenue gains were staggering. At the Justice Department, proceeds from forfeiture soared from twenty-seven million dollars in 1985 to five hundred and fifty-six million in 1993. (Last year, the department took in nearly $4.2 billion in forfeitures, a record.) The strategy helped reconcile President Reagan’s call for government action in fighting crime with his call to reduce public spending. In 1989, Attorney General Richard Thornburgh boasted, “It’s now possible for a drug dealer to serve time in a forfeiture-financed prison after being arrested by agents driving a forfeiture-provided automobile while working in a forfeiture-funded sting operation.” (Sarah Stillman, “Taken“, The New Yorker, 12 Aug. 2013)

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, called for Congress to act, saying “It’s remarkable how little scrutiny the DEA faces from Congress or other federal overseers. With an annual budget of over $2 billion as well as significant discretionary powers, DEA certainly merits a top-to-bottom review of its operations, expenditures and discretionary actions.” We might add that it’s time for Congress to specifically review the DEA’s discretionary asset forfeiture authority and access to unappropriated forfeiture revenues. Prior to 1984, the US was able to fund its federal and state law enforcement through direct legislative appropriations. It’s time for Congress to reassert its power of the purse and end the ability of federal law enforcement to chase profits without accountability.


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  • commented 2014-08-26 00:44:47 -0500
    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.” ~Declaration of Independence