Policing For Profit

“To serve, protect, and also make a profit.”  Some would argue that is a more accurate slogan for police departments that participate in civil asset seizure—a legally sanctioned practice that permits law enforcement to seize cash believed to be the proceeds of drug trafficking and then keep a share of that money to help fund their department.

24-year-old student Charles Clarke is a recent example of how unfair civil asset forfeiture can be.  In February 2014, DEA agents seized $11,000 in cash from his luggage at an airport in Kentucky.  DEA agents didn’t find any drugs, weapons or contraband, but still justified the seizure on the grounds that Mr. Clarke’s luggage smelled like marijuana (he admits to being a marijuana smoker), he arrived on a one-way ticket, and he was unable to provide documentation for where the money came from.

Clarke claims that he spent five years saving up the money for school tuition.  He has not been charged with a crime, and civil asset seizure law does not require successful criminal prosecution for law enforcement to keep the money.  A non-profit civil liberties group is now fighting the seizure in court, but their prospects for success are unclear.

The DEA argues that civil asset seizure is an important weapon in the war against drugs, stating on their website: “By attacking the financial infrastructure of drug trafficking organizations world-wide, DEA has disrupted and dismantled major drug trafficking organizations and their supply chains, thereby improving national security and increasing the quality of life for the American public.”

However, many civil rights activists would argue this is an unconstitutional practice that puts the burden on the average citizen to prove that what they own is actually theirs, and worse, that there is a very real profit incentive for law enforcement to engage in this practice.