In Defense of Civil Forfeiture

With all due respect to my PJ Media colleague Megan Fox, and in full awareness of agonized commentary soon to appear below, I rise to defend civil forfeiture laws.

On Wednesday, Megan wrote derisively on the seizure of over $100,000 in cash discovered in the checked suitcase of a woman from Chicago whose flight connected at Dallas Love Field Airport. A police dog alerted officers to the suitcase, leading to the discovery of the money. Megan mocked the tweet from the local CBS affiliate that included a photo of the dog and the seized cash. “The local CBS station picked it up and wrote a glowing article about it,” she wrote. “I guess they thought the photo of an adorable German Shepherd (good boi!) standing over piles of cash he found with his incredibly smart and furry nose would make everyone forget that the police just robbed someone…legally.”

Well, no.

First, some background. I spent a good portion of my LAPD career as a narcotics detective, investigating everything from street-corner dealers to interstate and international drug cartels. Illegal drugs such as heroin, methamphetamine, fentanyl, or what have you are, like any other commodity, brought to market by networks of people who produce, transport, and sell the finished product. The proceeds from those sales must somehow find their way back to the producers and middlemen who facilitated the transaction. Drug dealers of course operate in secrecy, avoiding the banks and electronic money transfers legitimate businesses rely on to conduct commerce. Lots and lots of cash is involved.

Also like any commodity, there are costs involved in the transportation of illegal drugs, so the wholesale price of any drug is lower in a city near its origin. A methamphetamine dealer in Chicago can expect to pay twice as much per pound of product if he purchases locally as he would in, say, Laredo, Texas, or any other border city. Bulk shipments are smuggled over the border from Mexico to cities like Laredo, where they are divided into smaller lots for shipment elsewhere in the country by air, train, and bus passengers, and by private autos, U.S. mail, FedEx, UPS, and every other means of conveyance you can imagine (and some you can’t).

The news story on the Dallas seizure didn’t include details of the Chicago woman’s itinerary, but I’m willing to bet a paycheck she was on her way to Laredo, McAllen, or some other Texas border town, where that suitcase full of cash would have been exchanged for a suitcase full of illegal drugs, which the woman or some other courier would have taken back to Chicago. Depending on the type of drugs involved, she would have been paid between $2,000 and $5,000 for her efforts.

Megan finds it sinister that the woman’s money was taken despite the fact she wasn’t arrested. “The accompanying report indicated that the woman was not arrested for anything—police couldn’t find a crime—but they took her money anyway,” she writes. “If she wants it back, she’s going to have to spend the next decade in court fighting and probably spend more than $100,000 on lawyers.”

No, the woman wasn’t arrested, but she wasn’t released because the police “couldn’t find a crime.” She could have been arrested under Title 7, Chapter 34 of the Texas Penal Code, which prohibits money laundering. Section 34.02 prescribes that “[a] person commits an offense if the person knowingly acquires or maintains an interest in, conceals, possesses, transfers, or transports the proceeds of criminal activity.” California has a similar law, and indeed I have arrested and sent people to prison for violating it.

Related: The Arsonists in the Media Say the Fire is Too Hot

So why wasn’t the woman arrested? Because she in all likelihood was nothing more than a mule, or a “mope,” which was the term we used when I was in the trade. The time and effort required to prosecute her would be better spent identifying people farther up the chain in the drug network.

Contrary to Megan’s assertion that the woman would have to spend the next decade in court fighting to get her money back, it’s far more likely the money wasn’t hers to begin with. Drug couriers are recruited for their lack of criminal records and their ability to blend in with other travelers. They are provided with an airline ticket, handed a suitcase or two, and told to take a certain flight, go to a certain hotel, and call a certain phone number upon arrival. At the hotel they are met by someone who takes the luggage and returns later with the same luggage now containing drugs. The courier is given ticket for the flight home, and upon arrival he delivers the product and accepts payment. It happens many times every single day.

When couriers with drug money are intercepted by DEA agents or local police, they most often deny knowledge of whose money it is. They are interviewed and given a receipt with instructions on how to challenge the seizure. Rarely are these seizures contested, but when they are, the mere suspicion that the money is connected to crime is insufficient. It is the government’s burden to prove the money was illegally derived, not the purported owner’s burden to prove it wasn’t.

None of this is to excuse the abuses alleged in the Greenville News report Megan cited in her piece,  but take care to note the report relies on a statistical evasion common in media reporting on crime. “Black men pay the price for this program,” says the report. “They represent 13 percent of the state’s population. Yet 65 percent of all citizens targeted for civil forfeiture in the state are black males.”

When the demographics of police stops, arrests, and asset seizures are compared to the overall population and not the pool of offenders, you know there is dishonesty afoot. Is there anyone who honestly believes criminal behavior is proportionally distributed across all ethnic groups? As it happens, 60% of the South Carolina prison population is black, with drug crimes the second leading cause for imprisonment (after homicide), so the civil forfeiture numbers are not wildly out of proportion to the criminal population.

One may claim the “war on drugs” is not worth fighting, but the record number of overdose deaths recorded this year would argue otherwise. Beyond these 100,000 deaths, if you dare walk through any of the Zombieland homeless encampments to be found in every major city on the west coast, you will behold the still living but forever damaged people whose lives have been ruined by unchecked drug abuse.

The solution to any flaws in civil forfeiture is better laws and more effective oversight. Denying this tool to the police would only serve to further enrich the people who profit from the poison they sell.

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