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Understanding Federal Highway Asset Seizures

Following the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, the U.S. federal government began to look to local and state police to become more aggressive in their patrol and protection of U.S. highways. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) spent millions in training police officers across the country to aggressively search suspicious drivers in order to seize drugs, cash and other contraband that could presumably be used in furtherance of terrorist activities and other acts. Police departments gained additional job duties and an expansion of their ability to search and seize on U.S. highways through the federal Equitable Sharing Program. Since 2001, police departments across the country have seized over $2 billion from people who were on U.S. highways. These people were not charged with a crime, and no warrant was issued in these search and seizures. The police’s assumption that the seized money was related to criminal endeavors has been enough to legally allow around $1.7 billion of this seized money to be returned to law enforcement agencies for an assortment of law enforcement-related uses.

The Legal Basis & Unintended Consequences of Highway Cash Seizures

Federal laws provide the primary basis for lawful searches and seizures by law enforcement professionals, though cash seizures are also allowed under some state laws. Federal law is invoked, when seizures take place on federal roads and highways. Through the federal Equitable Sharing Program (EPS) police departments are allowed to seize cash and share this cash amongst their own department and with other state and federal agencies. Traditionally, asset seizure and forfeiture was considered an extremely powerful law enforcement tool that should only be used in limited circumstances to allow a government to seize cash and other property without warrants and without pressing official criminal charges. While such expansive and intrusive practices were originally meant to thwart high-level drug traffickers and other career criminals, the current uses of the law are now allowing street officers to take funds away from innocent people without past criminal records.

One of the main cause for these increased motor vehicle search and seizures has been the private police-training firms employed by federal agencies to train local police departments in highway interdiction techniques. One firm in particular created Black Asphalt Electronic Networking & Notification System (BAENNS), a private intelligence network that allows police departments nationwide to share detailed reports about American motorists. These detailed reports address both known criminals and innocents, and reveals these people’s personal information such as addresses, identifying marks such as tattoos, and Social Security numbers. Though such reports could arguably violate privacy and constitutional safeguards, they are still being funneled to federal agencies and others as part as the federal government’s law enforcement intelligence system.

Through such law enforcement networks and systems, road officers are now competing amongst one another to determine who can seize the most contraband and cash. Some police officers have gone so far as to advocate such procedures as a means of revenue generation. Hundreds of local and state police departments and drug task forces use seized funds to support their unbalanced budgets by using seized cash to pay salaries and other expenses. Such practices are currently illegal under an explicit federal ban, though evidence suggests that since 2008, 210 drug task forces and 298 police departments have seized the equivalent of over 20 percent of their annual budgets.

Furthermore, states such as Iowa and Kansas have prohibited their law enforcement departments from using BAENNS because of concerns that the system is not a valid and lawful law enforcement tool. This argument may have some merit. Law enforcement agencies known for participating in BAENNS have, since 2005, had a 32 percent increase in seizures, a rate three times higher than other law enforcement agencies not using BAENNS.

The battle to have seized funds returned is a long contracted process that can cost thousands of dollars in legal fees. As a result, only one-sixth of those who have funds seized have actually challenged the cash seizure. If you have been the victim of what you believe to be an unlawful seizure, contact Miami criminal defense attorney Jeffrey S. Weiner today.

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