A Primer on Dirty Money The ins and outs of the drug asset forfeiture process.

A Primer on Dirty Money


Why is there so much drug money moving on U.S. highways, and what happened to money-laundering through banks?
First, Mexican traffickers who've taken over distribution networks in the United States prefer to smuggle profits back in bulk cash. Second, it's gotten harder to move dirty money through the financial system since a government crackdown after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. According to veteran DEA agent Jack Riley: "The idea of money-laundering where a bunch of people in fancy suits are sitting around a table talking about moving their drug cash to a bank in the Bahamas and then over to Switzerland — we're not seeing that happen. What we're seeing is, the money's going back to Mexico the same way the drugs are — in the back of a car or in a concealed trap or in an 18-wheeler."

How much drug money is out there, and how much of it is law enforcement confiscating?
The Drug Enforcement Administration estimates $12 billion in drug profits is repatriated from the United States — the world's largest narcotics market — back to Latin America each year. Records with the Justice Department show that state law enforcement agencies seized $1.58 billion in 2007 alone, but that doesn't include the tens of millions of dollars that go through the state asset forfeiture programs — which are not tabulated in any central repository.

What is asset forfeiture?
Asset forfeiture is the confiscation of assets associated with the commission of a crime. It can be real estate, vehicles or currency. The federal law, passed in 1986, encourages police agencies to seize drug assets as a way to deny the narcotics cartels their profits and boost the crime-fighting budgets of the agencies.

The states all passed their own asset forfeiture laws, which in many ways mimic the federal statute.

What's the difference between criminal and civil forfeiture?
In criminal forfeiture, the taking of property is usually carried out after the owner is convicted of a crime. In civil forfeiture, the government seizes the property — in this case, the currency — without ever charging the person with a crime. The government must show by a preponderance of the evidence that the money is dirty; then it's up to the owner to prove that his cash is clean. To defend the money requires hiring a lawyer, who often charges more than the amount of the seized cash.

What are some of the rules of asset forfeiture?
Federal and state laws, in general, say that a law enforcement agency that seizes assets may not "supplant" its own budget with confiscated funds, nor should "the prospect of receiving forfeited funds ... influence relative priorities of law enforcement agencies."

NPR has found examples, mainly in the South, in which both of these things have happened.

What can law enforcement agencies use seized assets for?
In general, they're supposed to be used for law enforcement purposes, such as equipment, training or first-year salaries. They are supposed to be a supplement to a police budget. Prosecutors can also use seized drug assets for the official purposes of their offices.