Uncle Sam’s drug enforcement agency has been engaged in a scheme involving the shakedown of innocent travelers in airports and other avenues of mass transportation across the United States and seizing their cash without providing evidence of a crime.
It is a notorious scam often referred to as “cold consent,” which is a maneuver law enforcement agencies use to investigate people they suspect are committing a crime. A report published earlier this year by the Department of Justice found that the Drug Enforcement Administration has been utilizing this tactic to seize millions of dollars every year from law biding citizens.
The latest research into the underhanded strategies of the DEA, which was compiled by the Office of the Inspector General, revealed that drug agents have been staking out various transportation facilities all over the nation, including bus station and train depots, and profiling people that they suspect to be drug traffickers.
Travelers are typically preoccupied with the circumstances surrounding their journey, so when an agent approaches and asks if they would mind answering some questions, or even consenting to a baggage search, the traveler unwittingly gives the federal government permission to search and seize their property without first obtaining a warrant. The DEA has the power to conduct these random questioning and search sessions “based on no particular behavior,” according to the report.
As you can imagine, these encounters have the potential to go from routine to pose a threat to civil rights. Several complaints have been filed against the agency over the cold consent procedure; one involved an African-American woman, reportedly an attorney for the Department of Defense, who claims agents subjected her to “aggressive and humiliating questioning” in an attempt to bust her for smuggling illegal drugs. No contraband was uncovered or seized in this particular case.
In a separate incident, another African-American woman complained that the DEA treated her “unprofessionally and improperly” in order to steal $8,000 from her bag. During an internal investigation, the agents involved said the woman “was pacing nervously and exhibited other characteristics raising their suspicions that she might be engaged in narcotics trafficking.” This led to them approaching her before she boarded the plane. The DEA alleged a K-9 alerted them to the presence of the cash, indicating it may have been “drug money,” which resulted in its seizure.
While it is possible the woman in this case was acting as a money courier, a drug-sniffing dog alerting positive on cash is no indication of guilt. Research finds that 90 percent of all paper money in circulation across the United States contains traces of cocaine. In addition, the woman was not carrying a suspicious amount of money. Travelers are permitted to carry up to $10,000 cash before they are required to declare it with customs.
Nevertheless, the latest report finds that around half of the cash seized by the DEA in mass transportation facilities between 2009 and 2013 was less than $10,000—a practice that has resulted in the total seizure of $163 million. The report found that DEA interdiction task forces are making millions by failing to “advise the suspects that they have a right to refuse to consent to a search,” and then cleverly persuading them to sign documents “abandoning” their funds.
In some cases, the DEA is being required to return a portion of the seized money, but only after the case has been contested. The Justice Department found that only 21 percent of these shakedowns are disputed, which has resulted in the federal government making a profit of over $30 million per year on this racket.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to determine just how much of this money is seized as a result of cold consent searches because the DEA is not required to document these specific encounters.
Although the report did not detail the number of cold consent searches that resulted in people being charged with a crime, there is enough evidence to prove that the federal government is forcing innocent people to forfeit their cash and possessions over suspicion of drug activity. The Washington Post published a story last year revealing that 81 percent of the cash and assets seized under the “Equitable Sharing” program came from citizens who never faced criminal charges.
Recent legislation introduced to Congress earlier this year, called the FAIR act, could result in a strict level of reform in regards to the government’s seizure practices. This amendment would require a conviction before Uncle Sam could maintain ownership of seized cash and property.