Highway Robbery at the Hands of the Police

Written By Ryan Stancil

Posted September 10, 2014

America’s highways, just like its airports and borders, have become part of the front line in the fight against terrorism following the attacks on September 11th.

Thanks to bigger budgets, increased responsibility, and encouragement from departments like Homeland Security, police departments across the country have grown larger and more aggressive than ever before.

The crisis in Ferguson has been well-documented and has brought widespread attention to local police departments dressing and acting like soldiers in a combat zone. What’s just coming to light, thanks to a recent investigation by the Washington Post, however, is another form of aggressive policing on our roads.

In the 13 years since the 9/11 attacks, police have made nearly 62,000 cash seizures from drivers to the tune of $2.5 billion. All of these seizures were made during routine traffic stops and without search warrants or the motorists facing any criminal charges. Following that, the money was split between federal and local authorities, with the latter pocketing a collective $1.7 billion for their own use.

This program is called the federal Equitable Sharing Program, which is a provision of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act that was signed into law in 1984.

Trophy Hunting for Knighthood on American Roads

The expansion of this practice is something that feeds itself: It proved to be successful from the outset so more departments adopted it. From there, word spread and it quickly became policy for an even larger number of police departments across the U.S.

The fact that law enforcement officials have their own network over which they can communicate only helps it along even further.

This network is the Black Asphalt Electronic Networking & Notification System, a private intelligence network that allows its 25,000-strong community of law enforcement officials to share their stories, reports, and tips for participating in the practice of “highway interdiction.” Many of the officers who participate in the forum received training from a program known as Desert Snow.

Desert Snow was founded in 1989 by a retired California Highway Patrolman who cultivated his own techniques for finding drugs (cocaine in particular) and money in cars on the remote highways spread throughout the Mojave Desert. Since its inception, the program grew and eventually created the Black Asphalt System.

Through this system, users have been shown not just to share tips on highway interdiction, but also sensitive information about particular drivers like Social Security numbers, identifying characteristics like tattoos, and home addresses.

Officers who use this system are also encouraged to post “trophy shots” of themselves with their various seizures. Every year, the network holds a competition to see which officers can seize the most, and the winner is granted the prestigious title of “Royal Knight.”

Shake Downs and Swelling War Chests

Even though the practice of doing so is banned, it’s been found that many of the police departments that participate in highway interdiction used the seized money to supplement their budgets. Knowing that, it shouldn’t be a surprise that departments participating in Black Asphalt have seen a 32% increase in seizures since 2005 versus departments that don’t participate.

People who have had money wrongfully seized can legally challenge the action in the hope of having their money returned, but only one in every six people has bothered to do so. Part of that undoubtedly has to do with the cost of retaining a lawyer, but it isn’t hard to imagine that many shy away because the appeals process can take up to a year.

What started as a program to cripple drug traffickers who moved millions of dollars at a time eventually became a multi-billion dollar enterprise for police departments looking bolster their coffers while claiming bragging rights and one-upping each other at the same time.

This growing trend of police doing what they want, when they want, for whatever reason they want shows that the mentality of “us vs. them” is steadily growing among the leadership in this country.

Law enforcement, like political leadership, has shifted its focus from serving the people to making money by any means necessary.

Keep your eyes open,

Ryan Stancil