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. I do feel for the cops that do their jobs well and legal, but the crop of thugs in the past 10 years are out of control. Local and state and federal politicians would give anything to cut drug programs or food stamps than to deny their cops from getting more armored Humvees……

  2. I had the pleasure of having you as my property law professor at Tulane, and working with you on your Parole of Prisoners program. After serving as a prosecutor for many years, today I am a criminal defense attorney in Newport Beach, California. I would add to your great article that the government entities of which these law enforcement agencies are a part are also motivated by hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal government grants to run these checkpoints. I recently uncovered evidence that a small local city lost its federal DUI grant of several hundred thousand dollars due to low DUI arrest numbers, increased DUI arrests by 100% in 4 months, and reapplied for the grant. A great deal of bad police conduct, including pretext stops, were involved in increasing their DUI arrests by that huge margin in such a short time.

  3. If you legalize theft, eventually someone will start stealing. Stealing was legalized for the pi…uh, cops, but no one else. Why be surprised that they started to steal?

    Who actually still believes that most cops are ethical? Most go into it for the power trip, not for the public good. Ethical cop is almost a contradiction. It sure as hell isn’t a redundancy.

  4. @ Jamie Dimon “While I respect many a law enforcement officer…”
    Therein lies the problem.

  5. Are dogs addicted to humping legs? Ask HumpinDog. Of course cops are addicted to drugs and drug money.

  6. I recall reading about a prosecutor in Florida, IIRC, who was well known for seizures of property in all kinds of forfeiture cases. She seized property on the thinnest of pretext, such as homeowners who had relatives arrested on drug charges. Then one day a young man was arrested as a drug dealer. He was running a big drug manufacturing operation out of the family home.

    His mother was the prosecutor and homeowner. Absolutely nothing was seized.

  7. Pete that doesnt nor is it going to stop them from searching your car… again what the people need to do is stand up as one.. as it is they are getting ready to starve the poor, working poor and whats left of the lower middle class by cutting funding to snap.. and the only reason for that is to try to force the people to begin massive crime waves and riots then they can declare their police state outright and implement their corporation as one…

    if the people weren’t so busy being distracted all these years by attacks which are put into action by the very corporation who runs this country then they might have realized what was going on. but as it stands they werent and didnt and now the so called results are outright in our faces…

    The corporation no longer feels a need to hide that they were never a government just a corporation masquerading as one. as for the leo agencies to bad they dont realize they are hated by all sides. the people no longer respect or depend on them. and the elites never gave a damn about them in the first place and now even less since they so willingly turned on their own people……

    Years ago i got tired of hearing the bs ” walk a day in a cops shoes” IMO NO ONE FORCED THEM TO PUT THOSE SHOES ON!!!! its a career they willingly chose. my response was always.. yea i will just as soon as they walk a day in the shoes of minorities…. just as soon as they’ve been falsely accused of a crime….. and these days there are no good and bad cops because the good ones turn blind eyes to the bad… yet in that respect they expect us civilians to do their jobs for them and turn in the criminals and if we don’t we get charged with a crime ourselves….

    Now they have a whole new racket to terrorize the people with and one way to put a end to that is to wipe your money off with a damp rag before leaving the house and don’t carry more then 100.00 with you at any time. and as soon as the cops stop you. put your phone on record….

  8. “do you have any weapons in the vehicle?”


    “do you have a large amount of cash in the vehicle”?


    “may i search your vehicle”?


    don’t make it easy for them

    it all depends on your definition of a weapon or a large amount of cash.

    you don’t have to allow a search. you don’t have to get into a conversation with the leo about it. keep you mouth shut, don’t answer questions, and

    just say no

  9. 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.

    The US money supply is highly contaminated with drug residue.

    Canine Sniffs Yield Unreliable Evidence for Forfeiture

    Scientists, in studies stretching back to 1987, have consistently found that a third to 97 percent of all bills in circulation are tainted by cocaine.[3] The latest study, presented in August 2009 to the American Chemical Society, found cocaine on 90 percent of 234 banknotes from 18 U.S. cities. The findings, arrived at by means of a new method of gas chromatography, confirm numerous previous studies.[4]


  10. 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 an ongoing nightmare with little fear of punishment.

  11. LEAP is ineffective, but they’re right. Ditto ACLU.

    Now, about those powerful lawyers. Wherdy go?

  12. First came RICO and the majority applauded because after all the police needed extraordinary methods to stop organized crime and so we winked at the Constitution because after all those gangsters deserved it. Then a senile actor became President and pushed the “War on Drugs” and so more extra-constitutional behavior by law enforcement became the norm. Then came MADD and an ostensibly purposeful movement gave license to roadblocks just to randomly stop citizens. Today they have all combined into a system where the citizen is looked at as a “cash cow”. I was stopped twice at roadblocks this summer in upstate NY and asked where I lived and where I was going.
    Being an old codger, in a fairly new car and living in the neighborhood, was good enough to let me pass, I doubt it helped for some others who were younger.

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