DEA Just Wants Money, But No One Cares Until It’s Theirs
August 12, 2016 (Fault Lines) – USA Today reports on what the DEA has been up to lately:
Federal drug agents regularly mine Americans’ travel information to profile people who might be ferrying money for narcotics traffickers — though they almost never use what they learn to make arrests or build criminal cases.
Instead, that targeting has helped the Drug Enforcement Administration seize a small fortune in cash.
What the report is talking about is asset forfeiture, and it isn’t anything new. Its problems aren’t news either. In fact, this site is filled with examples of its abuse (see here and here and here, to start). Even Andrew King’s argument against abolishing civil asset forfeiture seems to acknowledge it could maybe use some tweaks. This new USA Today report, however, is mostly notable because it discusses the scope of what the DEA has been doing to travelers in particular:
DEA agents have profiled passengers on Amtrak trains and nearly every major U.S. airline, drawing on reports from a network of travel-industry informants that extends from ticket counters to back offices, a USA TODAY investigation has found. Agents assigned to airports and train stations singled out passengers for questioning or searches for reasons as seemingly benign as traveling one-way to California or having paid for a ticket in cash.
The DEA surveillance is separate from the vast and widely-known anti-terrorism apparatus that now surrounds air travel, which is rarely used for routine law enforcement. It has been carried out largely without the airlines’ knowledge.
It sometimes feels like new stories about the government gathering data on citizens come out almost every day. Now, we learn there’s also a network of snitches ratting out unsuspecting travelers who probably thought the travel industry cared about them as customers. Sure, the companies still might, at least to the extent they want paying customers to keep paying, but the article makes it clear that at least some employees are doing double-duty as informants. That unpleasant lady behind the counter who scowled at you for asking about your lost luggage? Maybe she’s also got the power to put you in the DEA’s crosshairs for daring to make her get up from her comfy seat.
Furthermore, the power these informants have is expanded by the sort of information that matters to the DEA. It’s one thing if the informant has to lie about you making comments about having fifty pounds of meth in your luggage, but if just having a one way ticket or paying cash is enough to attract DEA attention, then a huge number of airline passengers are one transgression against a disgruntled employee-informant away from becoming the target of a DEA investigation for something they actually did. Unless you’re a perfectly normal airline passenger in every way, with a round-trip ticket you bought with a credit card and no extra cash in your luggage, you’d better be on your best behavior.
The scope of what’s been happening is substantial:
It is a lucrative endeavor, and one that remains largely unknown outside the drug agency. DEA units assigned to patrol 15 of the nation’s busiest airports seized more than $209 million in cash from at least 5,200 people over the past decade after concluding the money was linked to drug trafficking, according to Justice Department records. Most of the money was passed on to local police departments that lend officers to assist the drug agency.
“They count on this as part of the budget,” said Louis Weiss, a former supervisor of the DEA group assigned to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. “Basically, you’ve got to feed the monster.”
In most cases, records show the agents gave the suspected couriers a receipt for the cash — sometimes totaling $50,000 or more, stuffed into suitcases or socks — and sent them on their way without ever charging them with a crime.
At its root, the idea that the government can take your money and property without convicting you of a crime is a troubling one to a lot of people. It’s easy to see why that would be just looking at the idea on its face, but it’s made worse by the fact it’s a process ripe for abuse. Based just on numbers and also on the incentives created by the process, it’s clear that abuse is happening. The DEA has hungry mouths to feed, after all, those of local law enforcement. It’s never a good idea to make police dependent on others’ misfortune to balance their budget. They have plenty of power to heap that misfortune on people whether it’s deserved or not.
Of course, in addition to the concerning overall numbers, the USA Today story discusses one particularly egregious specific instance of abuse:
Agents seized $25,000 from Christelle Tillerson’s suitcase in 2014 as she was waiting to board a flight from Detroit to Chicago. The Justice Department said in a court filing that agents became interested in Tillerson after they “received information” that she was headed to Los Angeles on a one-way ticket.
Tillerson told the agents that her boyfriend had withdrawn the money from his U.S. Postal Service retirement account so that she could buy a truck, according to court records. Agents were suspicious; Tillerson was an ex-convict, who had spent time in prison for driving a load of marijuana into the United States from Mexico. She seemed to have little money of her own. And a police dog smelled drugs on the cash.
Agents seized the money, and let Tillerson go. Her lawyer, Cyril Hall, said she was never arrested, or even questioned about whether she could give agents information about traffickers.
A year and a half later — after she produced paperwork showing that much of the money had indeed come from her boyfriend’s retirement fund — the Justice Department agreed to return the money, minus $4,000. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Detroit, Gina Balaya, said prosecutors concluded that “a small percentage of the funds should be forfeited.”
That story does a nice job of putting almost everything wrong with the DEA’s activities into one neat little package.
Tillerson’s past made her the perfect target. Indeed, a one-way ticket might have not been enough to interest the DEA if it weren’t for that fact, and it shouldn’t be. Don’t you think the DEA might realize someone actually flying with tens of thousands of dollars of drug money would probably go ahead and shell out a couple hundred extra dollars on a round trip ticket with a return flight they don’t intend to take? Perhaps a history of not taking return flights will become a new cause for suspicion by the DEA, but a one way ticket alone seems like the new air travel equivalent of a nervous or fidgety motorist; something extremely common, possibly more so among people who aren’t doing anything wrong, but still a classic law enforcement cause for suspicion justifying them doing what they wanted to do in the first place. Tillerson’s ticket, plus her criminal history, probably made her quite enticing to the DEA.
Tillerson also had the misfortune of not having the most compelling story for why she had the cash. Who flies with twenty-five grand in cash, right? Why didn’t she get a cashier’s check to buy the truck? Like with her background and the one-way ticket, Tillerson’s real problem was that she wasn’t completely normal in every conceivable way.
Sadly, that ended up being a $4,000 mistake, which is maybe the most offensive part of story. She was never charged, and they never even proved the money was connected to a crime, and yet the government took their cut anyway. It shouldn’t be surprising, as that’s really the essence of asset forfeiture, but that does make it any less upsetting.
So the DEA is mining our information and using spies in the travel industry to help find easy targets from whom it can steal money without ever charging with a crime. It then gives that money to other agencies who help the DEA and depend on that money for their very existence. It’s doing it on a large scale, and there are clear instances of abuse.