Police code of conduct aims to curb unlawful seizures from motorists
WASHINGTON — Federal drug enforcement officials have issued a new code of conduct for highway police across the country intended to help curb the number of questionable civil seizures of cash and property from motorists.
Senior officials in the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program said they are doing so to remind local and state police about the need to honor Constitutional values and the civil rights of motorists. The code is voluntary.
The code emphasizes the importance of traffic safety and the restrained use of an aggressive enforcement technique known as “highway interdiction,” which often involves large numbers of traffic stops by officers looking for drugs, illicit cash and other contraband.
The code, a series of bullet points, was issued last month to hundreds of officials at the national conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Orlando.
“Emphasize interdiction programs are NOT purposed for enhancing agency budgets,” the document states. “Underscore forfeited ill-gotten proceeds be spent prudently in accordance with applicable statutes, sound policies and regulations.”
HIDTA operates as a program within the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Formed during the drug wars in the late 1980s, it provides financial assistance and coordination for local, state, federal and tribal law enforcement agencies. There are 28 active HIDTA operations nationwide.
Leaders of the program have been considering questions about highway interdiction and the development of a new code for several years. They moved forward with their “21st Century Interdiction Code of Conduct” after a recent Washington Post investigation found that local and state police had seized more than $2.5 billion in cash from motorists and others since Sept. 11, 2001, without warrants or indictments.
Those seizures were made through an asset forfeiture program at the Justice Department that allows local police to take cash and property under federal civil law without proving a crime has occurred. The program, Equitable Sharing, allows the local agencies to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds.
Many of the seizures were conducted by officers trained in highway interdiction. HIDTA officials said the technique is important to the fight against drug trafficking and other crimes.
“It’s a legitimate and very effective tool,” said Kurt Schmid, director of the HIDTA office in Chicago.