Committing Highway Robbery to Fund Police Militarization

by | Oct 15, 2014


The militarization of local police in the United States is not being fueled just by the federal government providing military equipment, including machine guns, grenade launchers, and armored vehicles, to local police departments. The police are also funding the rise of SWAT with billions of dollars obtained through asset seizures that amount to highway robbery under the guise of law enforcement.

In an October 11 Washington Post article, Robert O’Harrow Jr. and Steven Rich offer some revealing details concerning how state and local police have raised billions of dollars since 2008 via asset seizures associated with the US Department of Justice Equitable Sharing Program that allows state and local police departments to take 80 percent of the proceeds of seizures conducted in cooperation with US government agencies. In addition, much more police revenue has been gained through asset seizures outside the program and without direct US government involvement.

What do the state and local police do with the money obtained through asset forfeitures? As the Post article explains, much of it is pumped into expanding surveillance and police militarization:

The police purchases comprise a rich mix of the practical and the high-tech, including an array of gear that has helped some departments militarize their operations: Humvees, automatic weapons, gas grenades, night-vision scopes and sniper gear. Many departments acquired electronic surveillance equipment, including automated license-plate readers and systems that track cellphones.

Police departments even use the Equitable Sharing money to pay incidental costs related to military weapons and equipment obtained from the US government’s 1033 program:

Ten agencies have used the asset forfeiture funds to pay their fees for the Defense Department’s excess property initiative, better known as the 1033 program, which enables local and state police to buy surplus military-grade equipment at cut rates. The equipment includes automatic weapons, night-vision gear and clothing.

Police in Sahuarita, Ariz., paid $4,300 to outfit a Humvee obtained through the 1033 program. The New Bedford, Mass., Police Department in 2012 paid $2,119 for shipping costs for M-16s from the military.

In addition to the harmful uses to which the Equitable Sharing money is employed, O’Harrow and Rich point out the absolute injustice of the asset seizures that feed money into the US government program:

Of the nearly $2.5 billion in spending reported in the forms, 81 percent came from cash and property seizures in which no indictment was filed, according to an analysis by The Post. Owners must prove that their money or property was acquired legally in order to get it back.

You read that right. The way the asset seizures work is the police just take your money or other property even without the slightest basis for proving you committed a crime, much less that there is any relationship between an alleged illegal activity and the property taken. Then, turning on its head the fundamental American legal principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” victims of asset seizure must prove they had acquired without ties to illegal activity whatever was taken before they can have it back.

Revealingly, only in 19 percent of the asset forfeitures were indictments even filed. This is despite the ease with which grand juries that only receive the information prosecutors put before them issue indictments — thus the quip that a competent prosecutor can convince a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich.

In so many asset seizures seizing the property is the goal, and an accusation of legal violations is nothing more than a rote step in reaching that goal.

Michael Sallah, O’Harrow, and Rich explored in a September 6 Washington Post article the outrageous schemes used by police around the country to seize assets. Here is how the process often begins:

The Post’s review of 400 court cases, which encompassed seizures in 17 states, provided insights into stops and seizures.

In case after case, highway interdictors appeared to follow a similar script. Police set up what amounted to rolling checkpoints on busy highways and pulled over motorists for minor violations, such as following too closely or improper signaling. They quickly issued warnings or tickets. They studied drivers for signs of nervousness, including pulsing carotid arteries, clenched jaws and perspiration. They also looked for supposed “indicators” of criminal activity, which can include such things as trash on the floor of a vehicle, abundant energy drinks or air fresheners hanging from rearview mirrors.

In short, anyone can be a suspect.

From there the police can pressure people into “consenting” to a search, or they can attempt to use a drug-sniffing dog’s signal or other additional excuse to allow a search. Once property such as a few thousand dollars in cash — something absolutely legal for any person to carry on his person or in a car — is found, the police then seize the property. To make their claim to the seized property even stronger, the police may then move on to threatening their victim with prosecution for drug or other crimes unless the victim signs a form disclaiming ownership of the property.

You may be tempted to call Equitable Sharing Program asset seizures “highway robbery.” In many instances that description is spot-on. The October 11 Washington Post article relates:

There have been 61,998 cash seizures on highways and elsewhere since 9/11 without search warrants or indictments and processed through the Equitable Sharing Program, according to an analysis of Justice data obtained by The Post.

The asset seizures are, however, in some ways even worse than the highway robberies of private criminals. When confronted by a private robber, you may legally flee or exercise your right to defend yourself and your property with force and, depending on the circumstances, even deadly force. But, try to escape from or just nudge your elbow into the arm of a policeman who is in the process of seizing your property and you can be charged with a catalogue of crimes and misdemeanors. Plus, unlike private criminals who may cease robbing people or even be caught by the police after a while, the police, with courts’ help, have institutionalized their property seizure practices.

Where is America’s Robin Hood?

Photo: The Free Thought Project.


  • Adam Dick

    Adam worked from 2003 through 2013 as a legislative aide for Rep. Ron Paul. Previously, he was a member of the Wisconsin State Board of Elections, a co-manager of Ed Thompson's 2002 Wisconsin governor campaign, and a lawyer in New York and Connecticut.

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