Flawed Laws Allow Police to Seize Millions in Cash from Innocent Motorists

Cash Seizures

The Washington Post has published an article exposing the abuse of the federally advocated police procedure of seizing cash in highway stops. The Post has proven the process that started as weapon against drug smuggling has been corrupted into an inter-police competition to see how much cash an officer can seize for his own department. Supporting this is the fact that hundreds of millions of dollars has been seized by police since 9/11 from motorists not charged with any crime.

Cash seizures can legally be made under state or federal law thanks to ‘civil asset forfeiture,’ an extremely powerful law enforcement tool that allows police to take cash and property without any evidence of a crime, then requires the owner to prove they acquired their own possessions legally. No charges must be brought by police against the owner, and the forfeiture stands unless the owner can prove in court that his property was legally acquired (after hiring a lawyer and incurring inevitable legal fees, which are probably hard to pay when the police just stole all your cash). Essentially, citizens are guilty until they can prove themselves innocent.

Not only is that bad enough, but a federal policy called ‘Equitable Sharing’ provides incentive for local and state police to seek out and seize cash from whomever they please and reap up to 80% of the rewards. The policy was created at the height of the wholly unsuccessful war on drugs more than 30 years ago and has been under public scrutiny (and journalistic attack) ever since.

After 9/11, the war on drugs became intertwined with homeland security when smugglers of all kinds forwent the increased security of airports in favor of interstate highways. The government encouraged police to become more aggressive in highway forfeiture of cash by hiring private police-training firms that teach “highway interdiction”—a militaristic, romanticized way of referring to the civil asset forfeiture of cash, since “interdiction” is “a military term for the act of delaying, disrupting, or destroying enemy forces or supplies en route to the battle area.”

The most profitable of these training companies are called Desert Snow and (what really caught our attention) the 4:20 Group. Desert Snow has received $2.3 million and the 4:20 Group has received $2 million from federal contracts, and both have made millions more in registration fees from local and state police departments, who use the proceeds of cash they’ve seized to pay these fees. Because, after all, training in asset seizure is one of the permitted uses of the profits of asset seizure.

Desert Snow and the 4:20 Group both emphasize training in the seizure of cash. While the theory behind this does make a certain sense—that cartels and smugglers will suffer more from the loss of cash than the loss of goods—the corrupt incentive it creates for police departments to gain 80% of all cash seized is clearly, inherently flawed. The money to be made influences officers to pursue cash over crime, ultimately turning thousands of innocent people into victims of wrongful seizure.

Since September 2011, police departments have seized $2.5 billion from nearly 62,000 people without a warrant or indictment. Victims of wrongful seizure have two options: forget about it, or hire a costly lawyer and fight to have it restored, which often takes more than a year and can result in triple the amount of cash seized in legal fees. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this system is flawed and a gross violation of individual rights.

Check out the entire Washington Post article here for a more detailed (and even more outraging) account of what is happening on America’s highways.