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New FBI Tip Line: Further Incentive to Abuse Civil Asset Forfeiture

by Casey J. Bastian

A recent ad campaign in Charlotte, North Carolina, asks viewers to “Shine a light on drug trafficking.” A new tip line was introduced, purportedly intended to help agents intercept massive drug shipments coming into the Charlotte metro area. People are incentivized to call through promises of cash rewards.

The ad features two agents looking into a car trunk laden with cash, but having large amounts of cash isn’t a crime. The FBI offers to split up to 25% of any seized and forfeited cash with the tipster. If you provide information, you can get paid. The message is quite blatant: jilted, jealous, or just nosy — profit by telling us anything related to cash. The ad neglects to mention some key points.

Citizens can store and transport any amount of cash in the continental U.S. There is nothing unlawful about possessing currency. Many legitimate businesses use cash. Plus, more than 5% of U.S. households are “unbanked.” This means that a person has no access to a checking or savings account. And as many of these “unbanked” are minorities; the FBI tactic is often discriminatory.

Civil asset forfeiture rarely targets true “drug lords.” The Institute of Justice (“IJ”) found that at the state level across the U.S., the median cash forfeiture is a mere $1,276. In fact, an IJ survey revealed that in Philadelphia the amount is routinely under $100. Officers in New Jersey once seized only $11, and in Illinois, a check for $0.34 was seized.

Government agencies frequently operate with a financial motive. As agencies can keep up to 100% of everything they seize, we get the perverse result of cops taking anything and everything they can get their grubby mitts on. This is despite the fact that federal forfeitures must be at least $5,000 if no prosecution occurs. Despite the unsupported proclamations by law enforcement, there’s an absence of hard data indicating that forfeiture reduces drug usage or lower crime rates, but it does fill the coffers of law enforcement.

Incredibly, forfeiture was never legalized in North Carolina. So instead, the state makes millions through “equitable sharing.” When a state agency seizes money, the agency turns it over to the feds. The federal government gets its cut, and the state gets the rest, usually around 80%. In the state of North Carolina, between 2000 and 2019, more than $293 million in forfeiture revenue was generated through equitable sharing. That is nearly $40,000 per day, every day, for almost 20 years. More light must be shined upon this abusive and corrupt tactic — maybe a tip line can be created for that. 


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