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Justice Department watchdog finds DEA cash seizure program may pose risk to civil liberties

A Ukiah, Calif., police officer works with a dog to search for drugs or cash in a motorist's car on May 14, 2014. (Francine Orr/ Los Angeles Times)
A Ukiah, Calif., police officer works with a dog to search for drugs or cash in a motorist's car on May 14, 2014. (Francine Orr/ Los Angeles Times)

The way the Drug Enforcement Administration seizes cash and other assets may pose a risk to civil liberties, the Justice Department's internal watchdog reported Wednesday.

The Justice Department's inspector general also determined that the agency does not measure or track how its asset seizure activities advance criminal investigations. 

Over the last decade, more than $28 billion has been seized through the department's asset forfeiture program.

The effort and others in states have generated intense controversy in recent years, with critics contending that many seizures are unfair because some who lose their assets are never charged with crimes. 

Law enforcement officials, however, say that seizing property and cash is a key tool in disrupting criminal organizations and compensating the victims of crimes.

Former Atty. Gen. Eric Holder in 2015 limited how state and local authorities can obtain seized funds by working with federal agents.

In its report released Wednesday, the inspector general examined 100 cases in which the DEA seized cash. Eighty-five of the cases involved interdiction at transportation hubs, such as airports or parcel centers. Nearly 80 of those seizures resulted from the direct observation of agents or local police. The inspector general and the Justice Department have raised concerns in the past about such stops and searches, in part, due to the potential for racial profiling.

Of the 100 cases, the DEA could verify that only 44 advanced ongoing investigations, led to a new investigation, or resulted in an arrest or prosecution, the inspector general found.

"When seizure and administrative forfeitures do not ultimately advance an investigation or prosecution, law enforcement creates the appearance, and risks the reality, that it is more interested in seizing and forfeiting cash than advancing an investigation or prosecution," the report said.

The inspector general also found that the Justice Department does not provide enough training or require state and local officers working on federal task forces to be trained on asset forfeiture policies. 

The Justice Department responded in a letter to the inspector general that its analysis was flawed and its sample "significantly underreported" the amount of seized funds that are ultimately returned. 

In a statement, Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said, "Asset forfeiture is a powerful and effective law enforcement tool, allowing the department to compensate victims, deprive criminals of the proceeds of their crimes, remove the tools of crime from criminal organizations, and deter crime."

“The department believes that the ongoing public debate about asset forfeiture is healthy," she added, "but as outlined in our formal response, we strongly disagree with large swaths of this report and its flawed methodology that failed to address the essential role asset forfeiture plays combating some of the most sophisticated criminal actors and organizations, including terrorist financiers, cyber criminals, fraudsters, human traffickers, and drug cartels.” 

 9:23 a.m.: This story was updated with Justice Department comment.

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