It’s the highway hustle. The shakedown shuffle. It’s civil forfeiture, and it’s one of the most flagrant roadside abuses motorists face today.
Using civil forfeiture laws, police can confiscate property, like cash and vehicles, from motorists if they suspect the property is tied to illegal activity. The police don’t actually have to prove such a connection exists, and motorists must often fight lengthy and expensive legal battles to retrieve their property.
With the Justice Department taking in a record $4.2 billion in forfeitures for 2012, civil forfeiture has become big business. And business is the operative word here because behind many questionable law enforcement practices—and transportation policies for that matter—you find public officials partnering with private business interests focused primarily on the profit motive. Think Redflex and ATS for red-light cameras, Vigilant Solutions for automated license plate readers and any number of international conglomerates for toll roads.
For civil forfeiture, that business partner appears to be a company called Desert Snow, which trains police officers on the finer points of civil forfeiture. Desert Snow has also created a database known as Black Asphalt, which police around the country use to enhance their forfeiture operations.
Black Asphalt lets its 25,000 users compile and share detailed data on private motorists—whether they’ve done anything wrong or not—including addresses, social security numbers, information from traffic stops or interrogations, searches, etc. Information is shared informally without official oversight, and many of the reports end up in federal fusion centers where they can be shared with law enforcement agencies at all levels.
Desert Snow encourages users to provide data about their traffic stops by offering rewards and incentives. The more data an officer enters, the more rewards he earns. Desert Snow also holds an annual competition to recognize officers who have seized the most contraband. Top earners (to borrow a term from The Sopranos) are honored at Desert Snow’s annual conference.
The system appears to work. According to The Washington Post, police officers affiliated with Desert Snow reported seizing $427 million from traffic stops over a five-year period. In fact, Desert Snow’s methods are so lucrative, company personnel have even gotten in on the act. Last year, the Caddo County, Oklahoma, district attorney’s office contracted with Desert Snow employees to conduct interdiction operations on state highways. Working with local police officers, Desert Snow employees seized more than $1 million over six months. The firm retained 25 percent of the haul under the contract terms. Fortunately, the scheme was shut down after a local judge got wind of it and threatened to jail the Desert Snow employees who were involved.
But that’s not the end of it. In September, the ACLU of Oklahoma filed suit to compel Logan County, Oklahoma, Sheriff Jim Bauman to turn over records pertaining to Black Asphalt. (Desert Snow had passed control of Black Asphalt to Bauman in 2012.) The ACLU had previously filed a public records request for the information, which was ignored despite repeated inquiries. The ACLU also reports that Sheriff Bauman has been attempting to move Black Asphalt out of Oklahoma and that the Black Asphalt website has been put under the control of a sheriff’s department in Illinois. One can’t help but wonder what they’re trying to hide.
Now, we have no quarrel with a private company trying to make an honest buck. But we do have concerns when public officials collude with private firms to rip off motorists through illegal and likely unconstitutional schemes. Such unholy alliance are not uncommon, and they turn law enforcement into a for-profit enterprise. As a result, accountability and transparency go out the window, and the driving public suffers.