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Use A Landline To Talk About Criminal Activity? The Government Can Seize The House Around It

Thursday, October 19, 2017 19:44
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The Intercept has obtained a leaked asset forfeiture guide for seizures performed by ICE. (It has, unfortunately, chosen not to share the original document. Then again, the last non-Snowden leak it published appears to have helped out the document’s source.)

For those familiar with the process of civil asset forfeiture, the contents of the guide are mostly unsurprising. Despite the document dating back to 2010, ICE did confirm the version seen by The Intercept is its most recent guidance. ICE is allowed to seize property without bringing charges or securing convictions — something still permitted by federal law (your state laws may vary) and greatly encouraged by the new head of the DOJ, Jeff Sessions.

What is surprising about the document is how much emphasis is placed on the seizure of real estate. As Ryan Devereaux and Spencer Woodman point out, ICE’s forfeiture teams are pretty much property flippers, albeit ones working with the undeniable advantage of making zero initial investment.

Much of the handbook is devoted to describing the process of seizing real estate — homes, farms, and businesses — and it is in these pages that the dual priorities of financial gain and law enforcement objectives become most apparent. While the handbook contains little discussion on how to utilize asset forfeiture to maximize crime-fighting outcomes, there is extensive discussion of how agents should painstakingly determine whether a property is valuable enough to make seizure worthwhile


More than a dozen pages of the document describe an important — if perhaps surprising — role of AIRG agents: as real estate appraisers. Using the example of “houses used to store narcotics or harbor illegal aliens,” the manual walks agents through a comprehensive process of assessing homes and landed properties to determine the financial appeal to ICE of acquiring such real estate.

If ICE can obtain a warrant to search the property it plans to seize, it will usually send a private real estate appraiser along during the search. AIRG [Asset Identification and Removal Group] agents apparently ballpark property values using public databases — something that tells ICE whether or not it should move forward with the forfeiture.

As is the case in most civil forfeiture operations, the connecting tissue of criminal activity doesn’t need to be much more than gossamer-thin.

The manual instructs agents seeking to seize a property to work with confidential informants, scour tax records, and even obtain an interception warrant to determine whether “a telephone located on the property was used to plan or discuss criminal activity” in order to justify seizing the property.

You would think the phone would be the “guilty” property — at least as far as you can follow forfeiture’s twisted logic. Apparently not. According to ICE’s guidance, the entire house around the landline is equally culpable.

The handbook also points out civil forfeiture is preferable to criminal forfeiture, thanks to its general disdain for due process. The key factor is the conviction itself — something you’d think a law enforcement agency would value over seized property. In criminal proceedings, seized property is generally returned if the charges don’t stick. Not so with civil forfeiture. ICE’s guidance says when in doubt, go civil. That way the agency may still keep something, even if the alleged perp goes free.

ICE is by far the biggest contributor to the DHS’s total forfeiture take. This can be expected to grow with the new administration’s intense focus on illegal immigration. As with any government program experiencing sudden growth, one can expect an exponential leap in abuse.

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