At the DEA, Weiss toldUSA Today, they “count on [civil asset forfeiture] as part of the budget.”
“Basically,” the former DEA supervisor said, “you’ve got to feed the monster.”
Several law enforcement agencies, including the DEA, often use civil asset forfeiture to seize cash from Americans who aren’t guilty of committing a crime. But recently, the DEA was caught taking a further step to meet its forfeiture ambitions: data mining traveler information.
The process is fairly simple. In order to spot travelers with large sums of cash in hand, agents profile “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.”
In many cases, USA Today added, agents single “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.”
While one may argue against the DEA’s mission on several grounds, it’s still important to highlight the agency’s apparent lack of focus considering its agents aren’t doing what its mission statement claims. Instead of dedicating its resources to going after drug lords, agents steal travelers’ money and let the alleged suspects go.
That was the case with Christelle Tillerson, a traveler who had $25,000 seized by the DEA while waiting to board a plane to Chicago from Detroit.
“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,” USA Today reported. But Tillerson explained “her boyfriend had withdrawn the money from his U.S. Postal Service retirement account so that she could buy a truck.” To DEA agents, that answer wasn’t good enough.
Because Tillerson was an ex-convict with an arrest under her belt for “driving a load of marijuana into the United States from Mexico,” the DEA seized the cash. They let her go after the ordeal.
Once Tillerson was able to prove her side of the story, “the Justice Departmentagreed to return the money, minus $4,000.” The DEA had concluded its agents deserved to keep a “small percentage” of the cash.
Tech Dirt reports that airlines refuse to work with the DEA to sniff out cash-strapped travelers. Unfortunately, this resistance does nothing to deter cash-hungry agents.
Going around the airlines, DEA agents often find “airline employees willing to peruse itineraries — or pass them on to the DEA — for a cut of the cash.” In order to have a database at its disposal, the DEA created a network of informants “that extends from ticket counters to back offices,” effectively creating “a cash-focused surveillance network.” Tech Dirt adds that, among government agents, “[c]ash is king. Everything else about the drug war— indictments, convictions, etc. — is just a sideline.”