Cops and the Cash They Confiscate

Today the Washington Post is starting a series of articles entitled, “Stop and Seize,” which take a critical look at the power of the government to take cash away from people using civil asset forfeiture laws. Here are a few of the findings from the Post investigation:



  • There have been 61,998 cash seizures made on highways and elsewhere since 9/11 without search warrants or indictments through the Equitable Sharing Program, totaling more than $2.5 billion. State and local authorities kept more than $1.7 billion of that while Justice, Homeland Security and other federal agencies received $800 million. Half of the seizures were below $8,800.

  • Only a sixth of the seizures were legally challenged, in part because of the costs of legal action against the government. But in 41 percent of cases — 4,455 — where there was a challenge, the government agreed to return money. The appeals process took more than a year in 40 percent of those cases and often required owners of the cash to sign agreements not to sue police over the seizures.

  • Hundreds of state and local departments and drug task forces appear to rely on seized cash, despite a federal ban on the money to pay salaries or otherwise support budgets. The Post found that 298 departments and 210 task forces have seized the equivalent of 20 percent or more of their annual budgets since 2008.

  • Agencies with police known to be participating in the Black Asphalt intelligence network have seen a 32 percent jump in seizures beginning in 2005, three times the rate of other police departments. Desert Snow-trained officers reported more than $427 million in cash seizures during highway stops in just one five-year period, according to company officials. More than 25,000 police have belonged to Black Asphalt, company officials said.
Behind the numbers are real people and today’s article explains how these police practices impact their lives.  One of the victims mentioned is Mandrel Stuart:
Mandrel Stuart, a 35-year-old African American owner of a small barbecue restaurant in Staunton, Va., was stunned when police took $17,550 from him during a stop in 2012 for a minor traffic infraction on Interstate 66 in Fairfax. He rejected a settlement with the government for half of his money and demanded a jury trial. He eventually got his money back but lost his business because he didn’t have the cash to pay his overhead. “I paid taxes on that money. I worked for that money,” Stuart said. “Why should I give them my money?”
That’s a question that Cato has been asking policymakers for many years now.  In 1992, Cato published “American Forfeiture Law: When Property Owners Meet the Prosecutor.”  In 1995, Cato published, Forfeiting Our Property Rights: Is Your Property Safe from Seizure?, by the late Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL).  In 1999, Cato held a conference titled, “Forfeiture Reform: Now, or Never?   More recently, in 2010, Cato hosted an event for the authors of Policing for Profit, a report from our friends at the Institute for Justice.  Over the years, in blog posts, op-eds, congressional testimony, radio interviews, and university lectures, Cato scholars have been defending the rights of people from forfeiture abuse.