There aren’t many ways to make something as objectively awful as civil asset forfeiture worse, but the FBI has found a way to do it. As it stands now, forfeiture allows law enforcement to take cash and property from people under the (unproven) theory that it was illegally obtained. The rest of the process does nothing to prove the theory. The burden of proof is often shifted to people who had their stuff taken by law enforcement and the process of seeking the return of property is so expensive and counterintuitive, most people just take the L and move on.
The FBI wants to make asset forfeiture even shittier. It’s rolling out what appears to be a pilot program in Charlotte, North Carolina — supposedly a major hub on the East Coast drug distribution chain. Behold these (also unproven) claims the FBI has deployed to justify its new forfeiture ride-along program.
The FBI Charlotte Field Office is offering cash rewards for tips that help agents intercept drug trafficking shipments through Charlotte. With multiple interstates running directly through the Queen City, the route is appealing to traffickers who deliver their products and transfer the cash proceeds up and down the East Coast. While law enforcement agencies are effective at intercepting many of the shipments, the FBI recognizes the value the public can offer to our investigations.
Did you get that? Multiple interstates leading to a large city is all the “evidence” the FBI needs to call literally any city with a network of accessible roads a hotspot for drug trafficking activity. Everything is a hub and every road is an artery. That’s how the interstate highway system works. And because it works, every road must be a drug trafficking route and every city must be simultaneously a source for drug distributors and the home to thousands of drug customers.
All of North Carolina is suspect, according to the FBI. To clean up this southeastern drug paradise, the FBI is asking the public to contribute to its government theft program.
If a drug/cash shipment is successfully seized, the tipster could receive up to 25% of the seized money. FBI Charlotte will use the Department of Justice Asset Forfeiture Program to pay tipsters. Currently, the new program is only active in the Charlotte metro area with plans to expand across North Carolina in the future.
The FBI has set up an SMS accessible tip line in addition to its normal field office phone numbers. Tipsters who know where some drug cash might be found can directly profit from providing information that points agents in the direction of seizable property.
Unlike other tip lines with reward offers like CrimeStoppers, there’s no need to wait around to see if the tip results in arrests or convictions. The civil asset forfeiture process doesn’t require arrests and convictions, only nebulous accusations about the cash itself, which is named as the “defendant” in forfeiture proceedings as though it committed criminal acts all by itself.
And while it might be tempting to flood the tip line with bogus reports, keep in mind making false statements to federal agents is a federal crime, one that can lead to real, in-fucking-federal-prison sentences. It isn’t like filling out a false police report, which may lead to little more than a few months of probation and local cops treating future reports as highly suspect. Federal crimes are no joke and the FBI loves to catch people lying because it allows the DOJ to add to its prosecutorial wins even when agents are unable to find evidence of any actual criminal activity.
The hard rule (DON’T!) about talking to federal agents without a lawyer present applies here as well. Think about it. You provide a tip, thinking you’re doing a good deed by sending agents to seize the ill-gotten gains of an alleged criminal enterprise. But if any entity is capable of ensuring no good deed goes unpunished, it’s the FBI.
Agents may decide the submitted tip indicates the tipster is involved in drug trafficking or, at the very least, may be able to provide even more tips on criminal activity. This may lead to some in-person “interviews” with agents who — as noted above — can always accuse a tipster of lying if they believe they’re not being fully honest about their relationship to the seized cash or the people who formerly possessed it. They may also attempt to pressure a tipster into becoming a federal snitch and make their lives miserable if they refuse to play ball.
No good can come of this. No good comes from civil asset forfeiture and this invitation for the public to skim the federal government’s take makes it much, much worse. If the FBI’s going to be this stupid, it’s time for federal lawmakers to take this abusable revenue stream away from it by requiring forfeitures to be tied to convictions.