Police Ignore Illegal Drugs, Focus on Seizing Cash

The culprit is poorly conceived asset forfeiture laws, which also give law enforcement an incentive to harass innocent people


In the astonishing clip above, a local television station in Tennessee monitors police agencies that patrol an interstate highway. In eastbound lanes, the traffic flow includes vehicles importing illegal drugs from Mexico. Ninety percent of the time, police ignore that side of the highway, because the cars traveling westbound are carrying cash back toward Mexico. And that's the bigger priority.

Police agencies that care more about seizing cash than stopping illegal drugs from reaching their black market dealers is just one of the problems with our current asset forfeiture laws. Basically, these laws allow police to seize any property if they suspect that it was involved in the commission of a crime, even if the crime itself hasn't been proven. Radley Balko, who posted the above video to his Web site, delved into the issue in a 2010 Reason magazine piece:

Once the government has shown probable cause of a property's "guilt," the onus is on the owner to prove his innocence. The parents of a drug-dealing teenager, for instance, would have to show they had no knowledge the kid was using the family car to facilitate drug transactions. Homeowners have to show they were unaware that a resident was keeping drugs on the premises. Anyone holding cash in close proximity to illicit drugs may have to document that he earned the money legitimately.

When owners of seized property put up a legal fight (and the majority do not), the cases are almost always heard by judges, not juries. In some states forfeiture claimants don't even have the right to a jury trial. But even in states where they do, owners tend to waive that right, because jury proceedings are longer and more expensive. Federal forfeiture claimants are technically guaranteed a jury trial under the Seventh Amendment, but can lose the right if they fail to reply in a timely manner to sometimes complicated government notices of seizure.

The Institute for Justice has an excellent report on this subject too. Whether you watch the video from Tennessee, read the Balko article, or read the IJ report, the takeaway is something that should be obvious: it's imprudent to allow police departments to keep property seized by their officers, because it incentivizes abuse and the misallocation of resources. Reform ought to be a no-brainer in every state that has these laws even if you're a hard core law and order type.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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