More problems with asset forfeiture

  • 22 January 2020
  • NormanL

For more than 50 years, laws enforcement has been fighting a war on drugs that, some conservatives have argued, is a waste of time, effort, and scarce resources.

One thing this endless war also does is create absurd incentives for law enforcement to treat innocent people as criminals – seizing property (and refusing to return it) even when it’s clear the agencies have made a mistake. Consider this case, where a man’s life savings were taken by the DEA:

Every dollar Terry Rolin had saved over a lifetime was stacked in a large Tupperware container: $82,373. At 79, he was aging and worried about keeping so much cash on hand, his daughter said, so during one of her visits he asked her to open a joint bank account.

Rebecca Brown was catching a flight home from the Pittsburgh airport early the next day and said she didn’t have time to stop at a bank. She confirmed on a government website that it’s legal to carry any amount of cash on a domestic flight and tucked the money in her carry-on.

But just minutes before departure in late August, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent met her at the busy gate and questioned her about the cash, which showed up on a security scan. He insisted Brown put Rolin on the phone to confirm her story. Brown said Rolin, who is suffering mental decline, was unable to verify some details.

“He just handed me the phone and said, ‘Your stories don’t match,’ ” Brown recalled the agent saying. “ ‘We’re seizing the cash.’ ”

Brown said she was never told she or her father were under suspicion of committing any crime and neither has been charged with anything. A search of her bag turned up no drugs or other contraband. Neither she or her father appear to have criminal records that might raise suspicions.

Rolin and Brown are fighting the DEA in federal court to get the money back.

It’s one thing to prosecute a war on drugs – it’s entirely another to use asset forfeiture to fatten an agency’s budget, particularly when the seizures are obviously wrong, and entirely unjustified.