On January 16, soon to be ex-Attorney General of the United States Eric Holder announced what most of the press interpreted to be “reforms” in civil asset forfeiture. Civil asset forfeiture is a procedure that allows police to seize cash, cars, suspected contraband and property from anyone without first proving the commission of a crime or a connection between the seized property and a crime.
For example, if your home is raided by Swat in the middle of the night based on an unproven tip from a compensated and anonymous accuser, and in the process of killing your pets, humiliating your women, terrorizing your children and wrecking your home Swat finds a month’s living expenses in cash in your sock drawer, the police are likely to seize that cash and use it to fund more Swat raids. And you will never get all your money back. And, it will probably be at least months and possibly years before you get any of it back.
Many reasonable people see civil asset forfeiture as inherently evil and un-American and they saw Holder’s “reforms” as indicative of the Obama Administration’s reasonableness.
What Holder announced a week and a half ago was that from now on federal police would only seize “property that directly relates to public safety concerns, including firearms, ammunition, explosives, and property associated with child pornography.”
The Washington Post broke the story and reported that Holder had “barred local and state police from using federal law to seize cash, cars and other property without warrants or criminal charges.”
But it was, as it now turns out, simply a public relations stunt. Holder’s order did not forbid asset seizures by state and local police forces even in cases where local and federal police “are collaborating.” Most forfeitures are made by local police. All policing in the United States is ever-increasingly federalized. For years the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been hiding behind local police to discourage public scrutiny of cases against motorcycle clubs.
Now another shoe has dropped.
The Journal Report
In separate reports published by the Wall Street Journal and the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday and today, the sophistry of Holder’s hollow words about asset forfeiture become obvious.
The Journal reported this morning:
“The Justice Department has been building a national database to track in real time the movement of vehicles around the U.S., a secret domestic intelligence-gathering program that scans and stores hundreds of millions of records about motorists, according to current and former officials and government documents.
“The primary goal of the License Plate Tracking Program, run by the Drug Enforcement Administration, is to seize cars, cash and other assets to combat drug trafficking, according to one government document. But the database’s use has expanded to hunt for vehicles associated with numerous other potential crimes, from kidnappings to killings to rape suspects, say people familiar with the matter.”
The secret national vehicle database program began as a federal program along the Mexican border in 2008. Data collected by the program has been available to local police since 2009. Currently, networks of state, local and federal license plate readers are fully integrated. The information is stored at the “El Paso Intelligence Center” and any police force in the United States can request information about any vehicle. One redacted email quoted by the Journal states “Anyone can request information from our (license-plate reader) program, federal, state, or local, just need to be a vetted EPIC user….”
In its report on the License Plate Tracking Program, the ACLU also noted that the government program is “in addition to the corporate license plate tracking database run by Vigilant Solutions, holding billions of records about our movements.” The ACLU report by Bennett Stein and Jay Stanley is based on “documents obtained by the ACLU through the Freedom of Information Act.” The DEA records “are heavily redacted and incomplete, but they provide the most complete documentation of the DEA’s database to date.” The DEA would only provide “documents that are undated or years old” so the current extent of the tracking system remains a matter of speculation.
The ACLU report states:
“With its jurisdiction and its finances, the federal government is uniquely positioned to create a centralized repository of all drivers’ movements across the country — and the DEA seems to be moving toward doing just that. If license plate readers continue to proliferate without restriction and the DEA holds license plate reader data for extended periods of time, the agency will soon possess a detailed and invasive depiction of our lives (particularly if combined with other data about individuals collected by the government, such as the DEA’s recently revealed bulk phone records program, or cell phone information gleaned from U.S. Marshals Service’s cell site simulator-equipped aircraft.) Data-mining the information, an unproven law enforcement technique that the DEA has begun to use here, only exacerbates these concerns, potentially tagging people as criminals without due process.”
Asset Forfeiture Primary
One DEA document obtained by the ACLU describes “asset forfeiture” as a “primary” goal of the program. The released documents also show:
The DEA had deployed scores of license plate readers in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and New Jersey by 2010.
Partnership agreements between the DEA and local, state and regional law enforcement agencies remain secret so there is no way, at this point, for the press or for Congress to know how that information is being used.
The DEA is also inviting federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies around the country to contribute location information to the database. For example, the documents show that local and regional law enforcement systems in Southern California’s San Diego and Imperial Counties and New Jersey all provide data to the DEA. The program was “officially opened” to these partners in May 2009. Other agencies are surely partnering with the DEA to share information, but these agreements are still secret, leaving the public unable to know who has their location information and how it is being used.
A Memorandum of Understanding between the DEA and Customs and Border Patrol guarantees the two police entities will provide shared license plate reader data to each other as well as local law enforcement and prosecutors and “intelligence, operations, and fusion centers.” Customs and Border Patrol recorded 793.5 million license plate reads between May 2009 and May 2013.
The released memorandum clarifies yet another lie the Obama Administration told in February 2014. At that time, the Department of Homeland Security, of which Customs and Border Patrol is a part, announced it had “decided” it did not “need” a national license plate database. The plan became controversial when Homeland Security advertised for contractors to help assemble a National License Plate Recognition Database. At the time, the announcement was universally interpreted to mean that Homeland Security was announcing that such a would not be assembled because the American people found the concept of such a database to be repugnant. However, the reason Homeland Security abandoned the plan was efficiency and an intent to prevent redundancy. The database was already extant and had been for five years.
El Paso Virginia
The ACLU found that the El Paso Intelligence Center database is actually located in Merrifield, Virginia on the edge of the Washington beltway. An undated presentation obtained by the ACLU revealed the database held 343 million records.
The documents also reveal that the records are being data mined “to identify travel patterns” and the report wonders, “Are we all suspects if we drive on a certain road?”
The released information does not reveal the number of license plate readers operated by the DEA; their locations; the cost of the program; the number and types of arrests that have resulted from the program; the failure rate, or mis-hits, generated by the program; or whether the federal government has integrated its data with Vigilant Solution’s National Vehicle Location Service.
You can read the ACLU report here.