Are Police Addicted To Drug Money?

220px-Sobriety_checkpoint_easthaven_ctBelow is today’s column in USA Today in which I discuss the increasing revenue acquired through car searches and seizures. Some of these stops are thinly disguised drug checkpoints where a sobriety stop quickly turns to questions about drugs and drug money. Police are using pretextual stops and DUI stops as a way to circumvent the Supreme Court decision in City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32 (2000), where the Court drew the line at drug checkpoints and ruled that such stops were unreasonable even though it ruled a few years earlier that DUI checkpoints were reasonable. The DUI ruling was denounced as an all-to-familiar ruling from the Court which abandons principle for convenient compromises. Many warned the Court that it was placing the country on a slippery slope where road blocks would be thrown up around the country in the name of fighting drunk driving while searching for other things. The Court ignored the warnings and soon roadblocks appeared across the country. There is admittedly limited data on such practices but there is sufficient antedoctal evidence to raise a concern of the emerging pattern.

Across the country, citizens are increasingly finding themselves stopped on routine traffic stops or sobriety checkpoints only to be subjected to extensive questioning and searches. At a time of decreasing budgets, police seem to be hitting the streets in search of their own sources of funding.

Federal and state officers are tapping into an increasingly lucrative tactic called “churning” or “policing for profits.” This is how it often works:

Officers stop cars on a pretext such as not using a turn signal and then ask a series of questions about drugs or contraband in the car. If the driver does not consent to a search, officers will sometime declare that the driver is acting suspiciously and call in a drug dog or search the passenger for their own personal safety. Any drugs found can then be used to seize the car and any money inside of it. The result is that police are mining our highways for jackpot stops.

Churning has become the self-help solution for some federal agencies. The most recent example of this trend was highlighted by an investigation into the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The Justice Department’s inspector general found that the ATF conducted dozens of unauthorized undercover investigations into illicit cigarette sales and lost track of 420 million cigarettes worth $127 million. The investigation concluded that the ATF was engaging in churning operations designed to fund its operations and misused $162 million in profits.

State level

The same tactic is occurring on the state level where police are using highways to troll for cash and contraband. Empowered by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that sobriety checkpoints are constitutional, they’re setting up sobriety checkpoints to question drivers on drugs and contraband.

In Mayfield Heights, Ohio, this summer, police used the threat of an unconstitutional search to give them a basis for stopping and searching vehicles. They put up signs warning drivers that they were approaching a drug checkpoint. There was no actual checkpoint, rather, they simply looked for anyone pulling off the road or taking evasive action. When people challenged the ruse, assistant prosecutor Dominic Vitantonio responded, “We should be applauded for doing this. It’s a good thing.”

The Supreme Court allowed such deceptive use of stops in 1996 when it declared that it would no longer consider the motivations of police for such stops. Once allowed to engage in pretext stops, police have every motivation to use the tactic. To put it simply, police are developing an addiction to drug money.

Consider the case of George Reby, an insurance adjuster from New Jersey. Last year, he was stopped in Tennessee by officer Larry Bates for speeding and asked whether he had a large quantity of money. Reby said he had about $20,000 and explained that he planned to buy a car. Bates seized the money. He did not arrest Reby, mind you. Reby committed no crime. The officer stated that police would keep the money until Reby could prove to their satisfaction that it was legitimate.

Life savings taken

Then there is Tara Mishra, who had given her life savings to friends as her share in a new business. Last year, a Nebraska state trooper stopped her friends for speeding and asked to search for drugs. The couple agreed, and the troopers found more than $1 million. Though the couple explained why Mishra had given them the money and though no drugs were found, police kept the cash after a K-9 analysis found drug residue on it.

It was another pretext. Studies show a high percentage of money has such residue on it. Mishra was forced to litigate until a federal judge ordered the money returned to her in July.

In searching a car on a pretext, the odds of scoring an arrest can be as low as one in 100 stops, so some police departments appear to try to make up the difference in volume. For example, one study found the California Highway Patrol stopped about 34,000 cars in 1997 but seized contraband during only 2% of the stops.

At such stops, citizens invoke their rights at their own peril. One recent video shows an irate officer ordering a driver to pull to the side after he questioned the basis for the stop. He was forced to wait for a drug dog, which signaled the presence of drugs after the officer notably pointed at the door. The police then unleashed a full drug search. After finding no drugs, the officer is heard warning his partner, “He’s perfectly innocent, and he knows his rights; he knows what the Constitution says.”

Of course, his rights really are not much of a barrier when the Supreme Court has expressly stated that it will not question motives of officers.

Until either the court or Congress acts, citizens will continue to be harvested on our highways by departments seeking new sources of funding.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.

USA Today: October 30, 2013

41 thoughts on “Are Police Addicted To Drug Money?”

  1. The police state is a hungry beast and must be fed increasing amounts of cash to justify its existence. Property taxes are sky high in many places and residents are tired of increasingly burdensome taxes. As a result, the police state must find cash whenever or wherever they can, regardless of the legality.

    Many of these guys and gals retire after 20 years and then suck on the full salary pension nipple for the next 30-40 years. They need to make sure they get those 20 years under their belts and that means money has to flow into the department. While I respect many a law enforcement officer, they have the same human frailties of greed, corruption and abuse as any other large, high pedestal organization, except these guys can kill you or can make your life a living hell with little fear of punishment.

  2. Below is today’s column in USA Today in which I discuss the increasing revenue acquired through car searches and seizures.

    At a time of decreasing budgets, police seem to be hitting the streets in search of their own sources of funding.

    Federal and state officers are tapping into an increasingly lucrative tactic called ‘churning’ or ‘policing for profits.’” – JT

    The public needs to consider renegade news like that. 😉

    It illustrates that equipment is not the only thing MOMCOM provides for them, they also learn how to make money on the side so they do not have to go to congressional hearings and beg in public for funds(First Day of Spring 2009). The military has mastered this technique in the world arena, and they are training the growing militant PD’s to do the same here.

    It is a feudal spirit wind that blows against our nation (American Feudalism – 6).

  3. Plenty of lawyers are also addicted to the easy money they earn from scaring clients into pleading guilty to drug charges, and there’s good money in trying to get seized assets returned to the rightful owner.

    No wonder you don’t read about any powerful lawyers trying to help legalize freedom by getting drug laws declared unconstitutional.

    Where are the liberals in the legal/judicial/LEO professions?

  4. But then again… Who complains when the cops take drugs from them…..and never report it…

  5. The German citizens outraged over the spying should publish some stories about their dealings with the Stasi in East Germany before the Wall fell, and the Nazis before the 1945 invasion by the Allies.

  6. Yes, the police are addicted to money and the continued war on drugs will enable it the police to continue plundering. I am not holding my breath that the Supreme Court will do anything to curb that money appetite.

  7. “If a person is innocent of a crime, then he is not a suspect.” John Meese

  8. Of course they are and that is one of the many crooked reasons cannabis remains illegal. Gallup has 58% of Americans wanting legalized cannabis. The only demographic opposed are those over 65. Time to thin that herd. Paging Dr. Keverkian..line 3. Of course, not any of the folks here.

    65% of Dems say approve, 63% independents and 35% Rep. Time to make some cookies for the Rep. We’ll get their minds right. Actually, one way to get Rep. on board is to let them know once the Federal law is changed tobacco companies have the land, agronomists and of course the machinery to roll out joints in mass production. Too many of these pro cannabis groups are not savvy.

  9. This has been going on for decades. It’s legalized plunder. The first time I read about it was as a report/warning in Mother Jones magazine 20+ years ago regarding the Miami airport.

    Police Outaraged that funding for asset forfeiture is threatened by Common sense Pot laws.

  10. Thirty years ago I worked with a man who was able to escape Russia after trying for more than a decade to do so. At lunch he would tell us what life was like in the former Soviet Union (1970s and ’80s). There was listening in on phone calls and being followed. Officials would question your neighbors about you. Then there were the unexpected stops on the street by the politsiya, the searches, and the request to produce your papers – your release or detainment subject to their satisfaction, of course. Frighteningly, it was not unlike the experiences related in this story and recent disclosures of NSA activities.

    Makes me wonder if we are becoming Amerika or if we have already arrived?

  11. “…citizens will continue to be harvested on our highways by departments seeking new sources of funding.” -Jonathan Turley



    Police Corruption

    When Did “To Serve & Protect” Become “To Seize & Profit?”
    By Jesse Lava, Campaign Director, Beyond Bars & Sarah Solon

    Communications Strategist, ACLU, 10/29/2013 at 12:28pm

    This piece was originally published on The Nation’s website.


    Something is deeply wrong here. When incentives are this out of whack, abuse ensues—encouraging law enforcement to put profit above public safety. Police in Pittsburgh used asset forfeiture cash to buy nearly $10,000 in Gatorade. In just one month, cops from Bal Harbor, Florida, dropped $23,704 on trips with first-class flights and luxury car rentals. And the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s office used civil asset forfeiture funds to buy nine flat screen TVs for $8,200, and two Segways for $14,500.

    These stories seem almost comical until you consider the people picking up the tab, who are disproportionately racial minorities. Consider the case of an African American man driving from Virginia Beach to Wilmington, Delaware:

    He was stopped by police on June 16, 1998, while driving from Virginia Beach to Wilmington, Delaware. The police officer who stopped him claimed that a taillight was out, which was untrue. Once stopped, the officer subjected him to a search by a drug dog, claiming that he “looked like a drug dealer.” The officers asked him if he was carrying drugs, guns or money. He replied that he had $3,500 in cash. The officer seized the money, claiming that it must be the proceeds of drug dealing…The gentleman was never charged with a crime.

    The man never got his money back.

    Some states are working to stop this type of abuse. But even where some state laws are stricter, state cops can still take advantage of a loophole called “equitable sharing,” which allows them to seize property under federal law and keep up to 80% of the proceeds. That’s a loophole that must be closed if we’re to have a fair criminal justice system. Otherwise, civil asset forfeiture will remain one more way that our system has gotten way too large, intrusive, corrupt, and unfair, as the rest of our Prison Profiteers series highlights.

    End of excerpt

  12. Reblogged this on Dan's World and commented:
    I can’t tell you the number of cases I’ve had where the police have seized everything imaginable in the house and base their offer to dispose of the case upon the people forfeiting the items seized even though there is no basis for their seizure. It’s a horrible racket and a blight on the criminal justice system

  13. Are Police Addicted To Drug Money?

    It would appear so and the Court is the enabler. Hopefully this is the first step towards a successful intervention. It is time for citizens to practice some tough love on their Police Departments.

  14. Police departments are addicticcted to money that is illegally confiscated. The money or other property more often than not has nothing to do with drugs but the process of getting it returned is so complex and the burden of proof is a requirment that the citizen seeking return must prove the property or money is not the result of criminal activity. Innocent citizens are at a real disadvantage and government agencies are in a conflict of interest position as they profit mightily from these confiscations.

  15. We have a suburb that is notorious for these kinds of actions. I have heard people warn others never to even drive through this town. If these things go to court or one is given a ticket it can cost the poor driver a ton of money to prove their innocence. Why do the courts even allow such actions? They are surely capable of understanding patterns of behavior, etc?

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