This Week’s Civil Forfeiture Outrage (Sixth in a Series)

Photo Credit: Getty

This week’s civil forfeiture outrage begins with a photograph of a police dog crouching over more than $100,000 in U.S. currency. Earlier this week, CBSDFW.COM tweeted out the photo, along with a caption: “High praise for a K-9 officer at Dallas Love Field Airport after more than $100,000 was found in a passenger’s luggage.”

The “news” story—which noted that the woman who was carrying the money “was not arrested, but the money was seized and police say it will be subject to the civil asset forfeiture process”—obscured more than it explained. There are at least three lessons here.

Sometimes the establishment news media misses big stories.

You’d think that the journalist who produced this story might ask questions like, “Why is the dog being praised—and what exactly did the dog accomplish? Why was this money taken from this woman? If the Dallas Police Department thought she was committing a crime, why wasn’t she arrested? If they didn’t think she was committing a crime, why was her money confiscated? When police confiscate cash on the theory that there’s been some kind of wrongdoing, do they need to have some kind of evidence of wrongdoing beyond the mere existence of the cash?” Mysteriously, it appears that the writer never made such inquiries.

The absence of these questions raises other questions, however. Because, to me, this looks more like stenography: Did the author do anything more than transcribe a few sentences from a Dallas Police Department press release?

Sometimes one can actually learn something from Twitter.

The tweetstorm that CBSDFW’s tweet generated was notable—and notably one-sided. Out of roughly 340 response tweets, there were maybe three that suggested that the seizure might have been legitimate. Here’s a sampling of the rest, completely unedited:

  • This is theft.
  • So, police steal $100k from citizen with no due process, and get praised for it?
  • I feel less informed than before I read this “article.”
  • Are you reporting a crime? Cause this sounds like you are reporting a crime of stealing 100k in cash.
  • “Cops used dog to steal more than $100,000 from passenger without stating cause.”
  • “You have been found guilty of having money we want.”
  • I’m confused, is it illegal to have money now? I have 30 bucks in my wallet. Is this dog gonna steal that, too?
  • Good thing this money is off the street where it could have harmed somebody. That’s a “street value” of more than $100,000!!
  • Does CBS typically praise thieves for their thefts?
  • I always forget that legal tender is illegal. Silly me.

In other words, about 99 percent of the tweets were harshly critical of both the seizure and the asleep-at-the-wheel slant that the local CBS affiliate provided. Of course, it’s important not to confuse Twitter with some kind of gauge of public opinion about forfeiture (Twitter does not provide anything like a neutral survey of public sentiment), but the resultant brigade of critical tweets suggests there is a substantial segment of the public that is, first, both reasonably well-informed about the nature of civil asset forfeiture today and, second, absolutely hates it.

(I should add that, at this point, I feel a little sorry for the K-9 officer—that is, the dog that was involved in detecting the money. I don’t think the dog did anything wrong. After all, he was only following odors.)

Sometimes the establishment news media, in contrast, does a decent job at informing the public what’s actually happening.

I’m pleased to note that other news outlets appear to have reacted to CBS’s original tweet by presenting a far more balanced perspective in their reporting of the cash seizure. D Magazine published a less one-sided account of the seizure that probed the law at issue: Law enforcement officers may seize personal property if they believe there’s a better than 50-50 chance that the property either has been or will be part of a crime.

The local ABC affiliate produced a news story with inquiries about the pending investigation, links to news articles about suspect forfeiture practices in Texas in the past, and comments from two state legislators, including the Speaker of the House, that call for forfeiture reforms in Texas in the future. Indeed, one day after Dallas’s CBS affiliate bobbled the original story, it produced a follow-up piece noting that police still have not explained what the grounds for the seizure were. The piece featured Institute for Justice superlawyer Dan Alban, who explained: “unfortunately, both TSA and DEA have policies that treat what they consider to be large amounts of money as presumptively suspicious and indicative of criminal activity.”

So what’s going to happen to the money? Will its original owner ever get it back? We still don’t know. Maybe she’ll give up and just walk away (if there’s actually evidence of wrongdoing associated with the money, just walking away may be her best option). Maybe she’ll find a lawyer to sue the government for the return of the cash: The best-case scenario there is probably that she gets around two-thirds of her money back after months or years (the lawyer will have to be paid somehow, and it’s customary for attorneys to take a one-third share of recovered goods for themselves in such cases). Maybe the authorities will decide that the entire seizure was conducted in such an unfair and indefensible manner in this instance that they’ll just give the cash back to her. I wouldn’t bet a lot on that last possibility, though.