Print Shortlink

Stop and Seize

From the Washington Post, Written by Michael Sallah, Robert O’Harrow Jr., Steven Rich
Published on September 6, 2014

After the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the government called on police to become the eyes and ears of homeland security on America’s highways.

Local officers, county deputies and state troopers were encouraged to act more aggressively in searching for suspicious people, drugs and other contraband. The departments of Homeland Security and Justice spent millions on police training.

The effort succeeded, but it had an impact that has been largely hidden from public view: the spread of an aggressive brand of policing that has spurred the seizure of hundreds of millions of dollars in cash from motorists and others not charged with crimes, a Washington Post investigation found. Thousands of people have been forced to fight legal battles that can last more than a year to get their money back.

Stop and Seize: In recent years, thousands of people have had cash confiscated by police without being charged with crimes. The Post looks at the police culture behind the seizures and the people who were forced to fight the government to get their money back.

Behind the rise in seizures is a little-known cottage industry of private police-training firms that teach the techniques of “highway interdiction” to departments across the country.

One of those firms created a private intelligence network known as Black Asphalt Electronic Networking & Notification System that enabled police nationwide to share detailed reports about American motorists — criminals and the innocent alike — including their Social Security numbers, addresses and identifying tattoos, as well as hunches about which drivers to stop.

Many of the reports have been funneled to federal agencies and fusion centers as part of the government’s burgeoning law enforcement intelligence systems — despite warnings from state and federal authorities that the information could violate privacy and constitutional protections.

A thriving subculture of road officers on the network now competes to see who can seize the most cash and contraband, describing their exploits in the network’s chat rooms and sharing “trophy shots” of money and drugs. Some police advocate highway interdiction as a way of raising revenue for cash-strapped municipalities.

“All of our home towns are sitting on a tax-liberating gold mine,” Deputy Ron Hain of Kane County, Ill., wrote in a self-published book under a pseudonym. Hain is a marketing specialist for Desert Snow, a leading interdiction training firm based in Guthrie, Okla., whose founders also created Black Asphalt.

Hain’s book calls for “turning our police forces into present-day Robin Hoods.”

Cash seizures can be made under state or federal civil law. One of the primary ways police departments are able to seize money and share in the proceeds at the federal level is through a long-standing Justice Department civil asset forfeiture program known as Equitable Sharing. Asset forfeiture is an extraordinarily powerful law enforcement tool that allows the government to take cash and property without pressing criminal charges and then requires the owners to prove their possessions were legally acquired.

The practice has been controversial since its inception at the height of the drug war more than three decades ago, and its abuses have been the subject of journalistic exposés and congressional hearings. But unexplored until now is the role of the federal government and the private police trainers in encouraging officers to target cash on the nation’s highways since 9/11.

“Those laws were meant to take a guy out for selling $1 million in cocaine or who was trying to launder large amounts of money,” said Mark Overton, the police chief in Bal Harbour, Fla., who once oversaw a federal drug task force in South Florida. “It was never meant for a street cop to take a few thousand dollars from a driver by the side of the road.”

To examine the scope of asset forfeiture since the terror attacks, The Post analyzed a database of hundreds of thousands of seizure records at the Justice Department, reviewed hundreds of federal court cases, obtained internal records from training firms and interviewed scores of police officers, prosecutors and motorists.

Civil forfeiture cash seizures
Under the federal Equitable Sharing Program, police have seized $2.5 billion since 2001 from people who were not charged with a crime and without a warrant being issued. Police reasoned that the money was crime-related. About $1.7 billion was sent back to law enforcement agencies for their use.

The Post found:

There have been 61,998 cash seizures made on highways and elsewhere since 9/11 without search warrants or indictments through the Equitable Sharing Program, totaling more than $2.5 billion. State and local authorities kept more than $1.7 billion of that while Justice, Homeland Security and other federal agencies received $800 million. Half of the seizures were below $8,800.
Only a sixth of the seizures were legally challenged, in part because of the costs of legal action against the government. But in 41 percent of cases — 4,455 — where there was a challenge, the government agreed to return money. The appeals process took more than a year in 40 percent of those cases and often required owners of the cash to sign agreements not to sue police over the seizures.
Hundreds of state and local departments and drug task forces appear to rely on seized cash, despite a federal ban on the money to pay salaries or otherwise support budgets. The Post found that 298 departments and 210 task forces have seized the equivalent of 20 percent or more of their annual budgets since 2008.
Agencies with police known to be participating in the Black Asphalt intelligence network have seen a 32 percent jump in seizures beginning in 2005, three times the rate of other police departments. Desert Snow-trained officers reported more than $427 million in cash seizures during highway stops in just one five-year period, according to company officials. More than 25,000 police have belonged to Black Asphalt, company officials said.
State law enforcement officials in Iowa and Kansas prohibited the use of the Black Asphalt network because of concerns that it might not be a legal law enforcement tool. A federal prosecutor in Nebraska warned that Black Asphalt reports could violate laws governing civil liberties, the handling of sensitive law enforcement information and the disclosure of pretrial information to defendants. But officials at Justice and Homeland Security continued to use it.
Justice spokesman Peter Carr said the department had no comment on The Post’s overall findings. But he said the department has a compliance review process in place for the Equitable Sharing Program and attorneys for federal agencies must review the seizures before they are “adopted” for inclusion in the program.

“Adoptions of state and local seizures — when a state and local law enforcement agency requests a federal seizing agency to adopt a state and local seizure for federal forfeiture — represent an average of only 3 percent of the total forfeiture amount since 2007,” Carr said.

The Justice Department data released to The Post does not contain information about race. Carr said the department prohibits racial profiling. But in 400 federal court cases examined by The Post where people who challenged seizures and received some money back, the majority were black, Hispanic or another minority.

A 55-year-old Chinese American restaurateur from Georgia was pulled over for minor speeding on Interstate 10 in Alabama and detained for nearly two hours. He was carrying $75,000 raised from relatives to buy a Chinese restaurant in Lake Charles, La. He got back his money 10 months later but only after spending thousands of dollars on a lawyer and losing out on the restaurant deal.

A 40-year-old Hispanic carpenter from New Jersey was stopped on Interstate 95 in Virginia for having tinted windows. Police said he appeared nervous and consented to a search. They took $18,000 that he said was meant to buy a used car. He had to hire a lawyer to get back his money.

Mandrel Stuart, a 35-year-old African American owner of a small barbecue restaurant in Staunton, Va., was stunned when police took $17,550 from him during a stop in 2012 for a minor traffic infraction on Interstate 66 in Fairfax. He rejected a settlement with the government for half of his money and demanded a jury trial. He eventually got his money back but lost his business because he didn’t have the cash to pay his overhead.

“I paid taxes on that money. I worked for that money,” Stuart said. “Why should I give them my money?”
Mandrel Stuart talks about being stopped by Fairfax County police last year and having $17,550 confiscated under a civil forfeiture law, while sitting in his former restaurant, now known as the Shack in Staunton, Va. Stuart was never charged with a crime and, as a result of having the money taken, lost his restaurant, the Smoking Roosters. Stuart recently won a court case giving him back the $17,550. (Norm Shafer for The Washington Post)
In defense of seizures
Steven Peterson, a former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent who arranged highway interdiction training through a company called the 4:20 Group, said that patrol officers used to try to make their names with large drug busts. He said he saw that change when agency leaders realized that cash seizures could help their departments during lean times.

“They saw this as a way to provide equipment and training for their guys,” Peterson said. “If you seized large amounts of cash, that’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

There is no question that state and federal forfeiture programs have crippled powerful drug-trafficking organizations, thwarted an assortment of criminals and brought millions of dollars to financially stressed police departments.

Advocates of highway interdiction say it plays an important role in protecting the public and that officers take care to respect the rights of citizens.

“We don’t go hunting for money in general,” said Sandy Springs, Ga., Officer Mike DeWald, who has served as a trainer for 4:20. “I never have been pressured to go after money. We are in pursuit of the criminal element.”

Police trainers said that their work has helped make the country safer by teaching police to be more vigilant in identifying drug smugglers and terrorists.

“9/11 caused a lot of officers to realize they should be out there looking for those kind of people,” said David Frye, a part-time Nebraska county deputy sheriff who serves as chief instructor at Desert Snow and was operations director of Black Asphalt. “When money is taken from an organization, it hurts them more than when they lose the drugs.”

These screen grabs were taken from a promotional video for Desert Snow posted on YouTube by user InRoadsBook. (YouTube)
Frye and Desert Snow’s founder, a former California highway patrolman named Joe David, defended Black Asphalt, which David started in 2004. They said they have taken steps in recent years to ensure that the informal police network complies with state and federal laws. David declined to speak to The Post.

“The Black Asphalt is not flawless, however the intent behind it is,” David and Frye wrote in a letter in 2012 sent to police and obtained by The Post. “The information being moved through the system has proven itself reliable on hundreds of occasions. Much more reliable than any criminal informant. The results have been staggering. It has proven itself an extremely valuable tool for law enforcement.”

Hain, Desert Snow’s marketing official, said “the operational and software platforms of the Desert Snow site and Black Asphalt site are completely separate.” He said Black Asphalt is “a secure system for intelligence sharing” and does not store information.

“No personal identifying information from seizure reports have ever been collected or stored by the Black Asphalt,” Hain said. “The Black Asphalt software is simply a pass-through system that allows the user to input data, which is then sent directly, via e-mail, to a select group of law enforcement (i.e. local investigators, ICE Bulk Cash Smuggling Center, DEA agents, etc.). Again, none of the personal information is held within the system, only the summary of the seizure. And then the seizure narratives are only maintained for 21 days before they get purged.”

The Post obtained hundreds of Black Asphalt records from law enforcement sources with access to the system.

Among Black Asphalt’s features is a section called BOLO, or “be on the lookout,” where police who join the network can post tips and hunches. In April, Aurora, Colo., police Officer James Waselkow pulled over a white Ford pickup for tinted windows. Waselkow said he thought the driver, a Mexican national, was suspicious in part because he wore a University of Wyoming cap.

“He had no idea where he was going, what hotel he was staying in or who with,” Waselkow wrote. The officer searched the vehicle with the driver’s consent but found no contraband. But he was still suspicious, so he posted the driver’s license plate on Black Asphalt. “Released so someone else can locate the contraband,” he wrote. “Happy hunting!”

Waselkow’s department did not respond to a request for an interview.
The Post’s review of 400 court cases, which encompassed seizures in 17 states, provided insights into stops and seizures.

In case after case, highway interdictors appeared to follow a similar script. Police set up what amounted to rolling checkpoints on busy highways and pulled over motorists for minor violations, such as following too closely or improper signaling. They quickly issued warnings or tickets. They studied drivers for signs of nervousness, including pulsing carotid arteries, clenched jaws and perspiration. They also looked for supposed “indicators” of criminal activity, which can include such things as trash on the floor of a vehicle, abundant energy drinks or air fresheners hanging from rearview mirrors.

One recent stop shows how the process can work in the field.

In December 2012, Frye was working in his capacity as a part-time deputy in Seward County, Neb. He pulled over John Anderson of San Clemente, Calif., who was driving a BMW on Interstate 80 near Lincoln. Frye issued a warning ticket within 13 minutes for failing to signal promptly when changing lanes.

“The results have been staggering. It has proven itself an extremely valuable tool for law enforcement.” —David Frye and Joe David, talking about the Black Asphalt network in a 2012 letter to police
He told Anderson he was finished with the stop. But Frye later noted in court papers that he found several indicators of possible suspicious activity: an air freshener, a radar detector and inconsistencies in the driver’s description of his travels.

The officer then asked whether the driver had any cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin or large amounts of cash and sought permission to search the BMW, according to a video of the stop. Anderson denied having drugs or large amounts of cash in his car. He declined to give permission for a search. Frye then radioed for a drug-sniffing dog, and the driver had to wait another 36 minutes for the dog to arrive.

“I’m just going to, basically, have you wait here,” Frye told Anderson.

The dog arrived and the handler said it indicated the presence of drugs. But when they searched the car, none was found. They did find money: $25,180.

Frye handcuffed Anderson and told him he was placing him under arrest.

“In Nebraska, drug currency is illegal,” Frye said. “Let me tell you something, I’ve seized millions out here. When I say that, I mean millions. . . . This is what I do.”

Frye suggested to Anderson that he might not have been aware of the money in his vehicle and began pressing him to sign a waiver relinquishing the cash, mentioning it at least five times over the next hour, the video shows.

“You’re going to be given an opportunity to disclaim the currency,” Frye told Anderson. “To sign a form that says, ‘That is not my money. I don’t know anything about it. I don’t want to know anything about it. I don’t want to come back to court.’ ”

Frye said that unless the driver agreed to give up the money, a prosecutor would “want to charge” him with a crime, “so that means you’ll go to jail.”

An hour and six minutes into the stop, Frye read Anderson his Miranda rights.