A new report published by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General suggests that the Drug Enforcement Administration has seized billions of dollars in cash from people who it has not charged with crimes.
The report, released in late March, said that since 2007, the DEA has taken over $4 billion in cash from those suspected of involvement with the drug trade.
However, 81 percent of those seizures were conducted administratively and did not lead to any civil or criminal charges, according to The Washington Post. In total, that meant $3.2 billion was seized from people who were not charged.
In many of these thousands of cases, assets like cars, homes and electronics were taken away as well.
As reported by The Post, the seizures were legal, as the law allows authorities to confiscate cash and property from those suspected of criminal activity.
The practice of civil asset forfeiture also allows the DEA to keep whatever items or cash are seized unless the individuals they were taken from “successfully challenge” the confiscation in court, according to The Post.
Though the practice has its share of advocates, critics argue it can create a perverse motive for police, as they might seize goods not to fight crime but to essentially pad department budgets.
However, law enforcement groups say the practice is invaluable when it comes to fighting certain criminal organizations because it allows for the seizure of drug profits and other illegally obtained goods without a warrant.
According to Darpana Sheth, a senior attorney at the Institue for Justice, which fights for civil asset forfeiture reform, the Inspector General’s report raises several alarms.
Sheth expressed concern “that maybe (the) real purpose here is not to fight crime, but to seize and forfeit property.”
Meanwhile, the Inspector General found that the Department of Justice “does not collect or evaluate the data necessary to know whether its seizures and forfeitures are effective, or the extent to which seizures present potential risks to civil liberties.”
“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 states.
In response, the DOJ insisted that it had done nothing wrong and raised “significant concerns” with the details contained in the report.
The response highlighted the fact that worldwide criminal enterprises launder billions, if not trillions, of dollars per year, adding that the forfeiture of assets on behalf of citizens is a “critical tool to fight the current heroin and opioid epidemic that is raging in the United States.”
The DOJ also took issue with the analysis of the 100 cash seizures performed by the DEA, suggesting that the report willingly left out more of the seizures that were legitimately connected to criminal activity.
However, the Inspector General stood by the report, while dismissing the DOJ’s accuracy concerns as merely “assumptions and speculation.”
“Nobody in America should lose their property without being convicted of a crime,” Sheth said. “‘If our goal is to curb crime, we should simply abolish civil forfeiture’ and only forfeit property after a criminal conviction is obtained,” she added, according to The Post.