It also promised the agent a cut of the profits.
A Department of Justice watchdog officially condemned the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration this month, following a report that the agency had recruited a Transportation Security Administration security screener to search bags for cash that the DEA could confiscate.
The very existence of such a partnership highlights much broader concerns about the controversial legal practice known as civil asset forfeiture, which critics say contorts law enforcement priorities and props up a system of policing for profit.
In a summary of its investigation, the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General concluded that the agreement “violated DEA policy” on a number of levels. While the OIG determined that the TSA informant never provided any actionable information to the DEA, it concluded that the plans to pay the agent out of the cash he or she helped seize “could have violated individuals’ protection against unreasonable searches and seizures if it led to a subsequent DEA enforcement action.”
In effect, the OIG was questioning the propriety of an arrangement in which a TSA agent would use his or her power to tip off the DEA to the presence of cash in travelers’ luggage, and then receive compensation based on how profitable that information was to the agency.
Robert Everett Johnson, an attorney for the libertarian public interest law firm Institute for Justice, says the same criticism could be made about the entire practice of civil asset forfeiture, which allows law enforcement officials to seize a person’s property — including cash, cars, jewelry and houses — without obtaining a conviction or even charging the owner with a crime.
“This really is what we see every day around the country — when law enforcement takes property using civil forfeiture, law enforcement is able to keep that property and use it to fund their budgets and in many cases even to pay the salaries of people who are overseeing the forfeitures,” said Johnson.
“That creates an obvious financial incentive to take property from people who haven’t done anything or haven’t been proven to have done anything wrong. It creates an incentive for all kinds of abuse,” he added.