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There are arguably few individual government programs as obnoxious and immoral as civil asset forfeiture.

It’s when police or federal agents just take your money or stuff on the grounds that they find you (or maybe your friend or relative) suspicious. And once your property has been confiscated, the burden of proof is on you, not the police, to show that you didn’t get it from any criminal activity.


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The cops don’t have to charge you. They don’t have to present any evidence of illegal activity. In fact, you have no right to a lawyer and won’t get a day in court. In some jurisdictions, you actually have to pay thousands of dollars just to be able to contest the seizure, let alone be certain your property will be returned.

In December, the feds announced civil seizures would be significantly curtailed, a welcome reform. But just a few months later, that decision was reversed, so civil forfeiture is back in action, ruining people’s lives.

This week, a USA Today investigation revealed a new twist in this miserable process: The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is searching plane and train travel records looking for people to harass. The argument is that passengers with one-way tickets or who buy their fares in cash might be drug traffickers, so the DEA says stopping them is just part of prosecuting the failed drug war:

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 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….

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.

This barely disguised theft is so entrenched and profitable that law enforcement consider the money they seize a regular feature of their departments’ funding. “They count on this as part of the budget,” said Louis Weiss, who formerly worked with the DEA at Atlanta’s airport. “Basically, you’ve got to feed the monster.”

That sounds about right, as one previous study found civil asset forfeiture increases in recession times: When lower tax revenues cut into police budgets, they just take more cash from citizens directly.

USA Today tells the story of Christelle Tillerson, who was traveling to Chicago carrying $25,000 in cash to buy a truck. The DEA stopped her because she had a one-way ticket (presumably she planned to drive the new truck home) and found the money. They took it and released her.

Tillerson spent a year and a half proving her money was legitimately for a truck and not related to any drug activity. The DEA finally had to admit its error, but kept $4,000 just because.

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And Tillerson is far from the only person whose life has been put on hold by this mess. Right now, a family in the Bronx is likely to be evicted because police stole cash they were saving for rent while searching for someone who didn’t even live there.

The family persuaded the district attorney to release their cash, but now they’re stuck arguing with the NYPD, which so far has refused to actually hand it over.

“You try to be such a hardworking person, and then something like this happens, and it’s such an embarrassment,” said Anna Ortiz, the woman whose money was seized. “The problem is that it’s just so common.”

Our government continues to steal people’s money and ruin their lives with civil asset forfeiture AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal
Bonnie Kristian is a columnist at Rare, weekend editor at The Week, and a fellow at Defense Priorities. You can find more of her work at www.bonniekristian.com or follow her on Twitter @bonniekristian
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