Apparently, the DEA has been hitting up airports, bus terminals and train stations to shake people down for billions of dollars over the past ten years. According to a March report by the inspector general, the outfit has seized $4 billion over the past decade, 81% of which came with no accompanying criminal charges. Reason.com reports:
A 2016 investigation by USA Today found the DEA regularly mines American citizens’ travel information and relies on a network of confidential informants in the travel industry, who often get kickbacks for snooping on suspicious passengers.
Common red flags include buying a ticket within 24 hours of travel, buying a ticket for a long flight with an immediate return, buying a one-way ticket, and traveling without checked luggage. They also include traveling to or from “a known source city for drug trafficking,” which in practice can mean just about any major city in the United States.
The DEA detains suspicious passengers, questions them, and searches their luggage. If agents find large amounts of cash and think it’s linked to drugs, they seize it—even if there is no hard evidence that it is connected to illegal activity. As the I.G. notes, agents “rely on their immediate, on-the-spot judgment.” The passenger is then often released, bereft of money.
While a lot of the seizures are well above $100,000, agents seize smaller amounts with no real investigation. Furthermore, only around 20% challenge their seizures by filing a petition. Out of those, only 40% get their money returned in full or partially.
“Americans are already outraged at the Justice Department’s aggressive use of civil forfeiture, which has mushroomed into a multibillion dollar program in the last decade,” said Darpana Sheth, attorney for the nonprofit law firm the Institute for Justice. “This report only further confirms what we have been saying all along: Forfeiture laws create perverse financial incentives to seize property without judicial oversight and violate due process.”