Since 9/11, the federal government has recruited state and local police to look for suspicious individuals and drugs on America’s highways to stop funding for terrorism.
Much to the chagrin of drivers, the resulting traffic stops from all this vigilance also yield a great deal of cash. This is seized by aggressive police, although many of these people are never even charged with any sort of crime. This practice is known as civil forfeiture.
What is Civil Forfeiture?
Under civil law, both federal and state, police can seize cash. One federal program called Equitable Sharing allows police to split the federal proceeds. Through the program, the government distributes a fair share of the property to participating local and state police agencies that directly helped in investigating or prosecuting individuals that resulted in a federal forfeiture. In other words, this gives highway patrol officers a system and a huge incentive to stop drivers and take their cash. In these cases, criminal charges do not need to result and the citizens need to prove the assets were gained legally to get them back.
The Washington Post discovered under the Equitable Sharing Program, 61,998 seizures of cash were made on roadways without either indictments or search warrants, equaling over 2.5 billion dollars. Local and state officials kept over 1.7 billion dollars while other federal agencies kept eight hundred million dollars. Half of these seizures from motorists were under $8,800.
However, only 1/6 of these seizures were challenged. This is partly because it is expensive to challenge these actions. Yet in 41% of cases where a challenge occurred, the government returned the money. In 40% of those cases, the appeals took over a year and cash owners had to sign documents agreeing to not sue law enforcement over these seizures.
Notably, the majority of the targeted people were black or another minority group.
One example is an elderly Chinese American man from Georgia. He was stopped for a minor speeding offense and was held for nearly 2 hours. He had $75,000 in his possession that had been raised by his family to purchase a Chinese restaurant in Louisiana. Ten months later, after paying thousands of dollars to an attorney, he got his money back. However, he lost out on buying the restaurant of his dreams.
The script that police tend to use is as follows: police set up a stop point on busy freeways. Then motorists are stopped for minor violations like improper signaling or tailgating. Next, tickets or warnings are given. During this time, police study drivers for suspicious behavior. This includes signs of nervousness and indicators of criminal activity. These indicators can be as weak as having trash strewn about, lots of energy drinks in the car, or air fresheners hanging from mirrors. As soon as police find a suitable opening, then they strike.
The bottom line is that until this system changes, it is potentially dangerous and costly for even law-abiding citizens to drive our nation’s highways while carrying large amounts of cash for any reason.