The DEA has been snooping around in the travel records of the United States population in an effort to seize millions of dollars of suspected drug money—without ever bringing anyone up on charges—says a new report.
An investigation conducted by the folks at USA Today recently uncovered a racket being operated by the DEA that has allowed the agency to generate mega bucks by simply shaking down travelers that they believe could have some involvement with the black market drug trade. The report, which was published last week, suggests the DEA has been using a sophisticated network of “travel industry informants” to pinpoint suspicious people in airports and bus stations that they can harass for the sole purpose of seizing money. It goes on to say that the victims of this scam are people that may have purchased a one-way fare or used cash to pay for a ticket.
USA Today found almost 90 cases from over the past few years where the Department of Justice has gone to federal court in order to permanently seize the cash—sometimes reaching more than $50,000—discovered in the suitcases and pockets of travelers that agents believed had a “suspicious itinerary.” This scheme has generated more than $209 million for the DEA over the course of the past 10 years, the report says.
“They count on this as part of the budget,” said Louis Weiss, a former supervisor of the DEA’s operation in the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. “Basically, you’ve got to feed the monster.”
But this is not necessarily breaking news.
Last year, an investigation into the strategies of the DEA by the Office of the Inspector General found that agents were commonly positioned in a number of transportation facilities across the country, including bus stations and train depots, to profile travelers that were suspected of having a connection to illegal drugs. This tactic is said to be responsible for bringing in $163 million between 2009 and 2013.
Although having a “suspicious itinerary” is not enough probable cause for a search, the Inspector General’s report found that agents were using this information as a means get the person in for questioning, which would often cause the traveler to unwittingly give agents permission to root through their belongings without a proper search warrant.
This questionable procedure, however, has not brought about a reduction in hardened criminals running around the country. In fact, most of these cash seizures are never associated with a person getting arrested or brought up on charges. This is because controversial policies known as federal asset forfeiture laws allow police agencies to take possession of cash and other property, as long as the items are suspected of being generated by or linked to criminal activity. And drug agents do not have any trouble establishing some kind of correlation.
In one case, DEA agents were able to seize $25,000 from a woman in Detroit because a dope-sniffing hound alerted on her money. In another case, agents seized $36,000 from a man at the Phoenix airport simply because he had a minor marijuana offense on his record. Yet, none of these people were ever dragged into the criminal justice system.
“Of the 87 cases USA Today identified in which the DEA seized cash after flagging a suspicious itinerary, only two resulted in the alleged courier being charged with a crime,” the report reads.
Both current and former DEA agents told USA Today that most of the cash seizures comes from people with minor drug-related blemishes on their record. And in most cases, there is not any evidence that a crime has been committed. But the overall goal is not prosecution—it is to get the money.
“We want the cash,” said George Hood, a former supervisor for the DEA’s drug unit at O’Hare in Chicago. “Good agents chase cash.”