Asset Forfeiture Drives Justice Department's License Plate Tracking

Despite Holder’s recent announcement, documents show information from DEA database can be used in majority of seizures. Jim Ruymen JR/SA/Reuters

The Justice Department is building a national database that tracks vehicles' movements around the U.S. in real time using information obtained from the Drug Enforcement Agency's (DEA) license plate scanning program, The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday. The program not only tracks car, driver and passenger locations via high-tech cameras along highways, but uses data mining "to identify travel patterns."

According to the newly uncovered documents, the primary goal of the program is to seize assets, such as cars and cash, to combat drug trafficking. But former and current officials told the Journal that the database's use has expanded to hunt for automobiles associated with a slew of other crimes.

Asset forfeiture has been widely covered in the news in recent months after a Washington Post investigation showed that police have seized almost $2.5 billion in cash from drivers without search warrants or indictments since September 11, 2001. In April 2013, for example, two professional poker players had $100,000 seized by Iowa state troopers at a traffic stop on their drive home to California. The troopers had no warrant but suspected the men may be involved in drug trafficking.

Asset forfeitures often go toward paying for salaries, equipment and perks in many jurisdictions. The American Civil Liberties Union contends that, "when salaries and perks are on the line, officers have a strong incentive to increase the seizures, as evidenced by an increase in the regularity and size of such seizures in recent years." Federally, it provides a stream of revenue.

Though Attorney General Eric Holder's new policy to limit the practice was met with praise earlier this month, further analysis of the policy's language shows the limits will only apply to a small number of cases, meaning the database can continue to be used for warrantless asset forfeitures.

When the program began in 2008, little information was shared with the public. Information did trickle out over the years, but a 2013 ACLU report called You Are Being Tracked found that license plate reader technology was being widely adopted by local and state law enforcement agencies.

New documents obtained by the ACLU confirm that these agencies contribute data to the program, as do federal agencies such as Customs and Border Patrol, which collects "nearly 100 percent of land border traffic," or more than 793.5 million license plates between May 2009 and May 2013.

The DEA also shares the information it collects with other agencies of all stripes, which are allowed to conduct searches in the database.

Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, responded to the news by telling the Journal that Americans shouldn't have to fear that "their locations and movements are constantly being tracked and stored in a massive government database."

"The fact that this intrusive technology is potentially being used to expand the reach of the government's asset-forfeiture efforts is of even greater concern," he said.