A USA Today investigation has discovered a network of paid informants working for Amtrak and nearly every US airline who illegally delve into passengers' travel records to find people who might be traveling with a lot of cash: these tip-offs are used by the DEA to effect civil forfeiture — seizing money without laying any charges against its owner, under the rubric that the cash may be proceeds from drug sales. One Amtrak secretary was secretly paid $854,460 to raid her employer's databases for the DEA.
The DEA and its local law enforcement partners rely on this cash to fund its operations, and keeps no official statistics on how many people it steals from, nor what actions they take (though they do sometimes file formal charges against the cash itself, resulting in bizarre dockets like DEA vs $42,300 in $20 Bills).
Best guess is that they've seized $209M from at least 5,200 travelers in the past decade.
People who fight the seizures sometimes get some of their money back, but rarely all of it. Christelle Tillerson had $25,000 stolen from her suitcase in 2014. When she contested the seizure, the DEA gave back $21,000, and said that prosecutors had determined that "a small percentage of the funds should be forfeited" without saying why. Zane Young had $36,000 stolen by the DEA in Phoenix in in 2015. In May, 2016, they gave back half, but didn't say why they were keeping the other half.
A DEA group assigned to Los Angeles' airports made more than 1,600 cash seizures over the past decade, totaling more than $52 million, according to records the Justice Department uses to track asset seizures. Only one of the Los Angeles seizure records included an indication that it was related to a criminal indictment.
Such charges appear rare. Of the 87 cases USA TODAY identified in which the DEA seized cash after flagging a suspicious itinerary, only two resulted in the alleged courier being charged with a crime. One involved a woman who was already a target of a federal money-laundering investigation; another alleged courier was arrested a month later on an apparently unrelated drug charge.
In many cases, current and former agents said, it was not clear that the couriers had committed a crime for which they could be arrested — at least not one that prosecutors would be willing to pursue as the Justice Department shifts its focus away from minor drug offenses. Instead, Weiss and others said, agents investigated the couriers after they were released in the hopes of finding a toehold that would let them identify bigger trafficking organizations.
DEA regularly mines Americans' travel records to seize millions in cash
[Brad Heath/USA Today]
(Image: Money!, Tracy O, CC-BY-SA)