Over the last four years, two federal agencies tasked with protecting the borders of the United States have generated billions of dollars in revenue through extensive seizure of assets including human remains, bombs, airplanes, yachts, and cryptocurrencies.
Since 2014, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have seized $4,159,696,970 worth of property that was allegedly used in crimes, according to documents obtained by Splinter. (The ones linked here have been slightly altered for legibility, but researchers or reporters interested in obtaining the raw files can email the authors.) The records include every seizure that was entered into DHS’ massive asset forfeiture database, the Seized Asset and Case Tracking System, or SEACATS, from 2014 through early 2018.
In one operation in 2016, DHS seized a helicopter valued at $5,800,000 and a single jet valued at $2,500,000. In 2018, another seized jet was valued at $5,000,000, and an “inflatable boat/raft” at $500,000.
But perhaps one of the most startling line items in the SEACATS database is the seizure of human remains. In 2016 and 2017, the seizure of several human remains was valued at $0. But in 2018, a single seized “human remain” was valued at $3,500, and another in 2015 at $10,000.
In September 2015, Kentucky resident Gerardo Serrano took some photographs while waiting in his pickup truck to cross the border into Mexico. Objecting to his taking pictures, two CBP agents stopped, detained him, and ordered him to unlock his cellphone. After he refused, CBP agents began searching his truck.
“We got him,” a CBP agent reportedly said while conducting the search. The agent had found five low-caliber bullets in the center console, which Serrano said he’d forgotten were even there. CBP seized his truck through asset forfeiture, claiming that it had been used to transport “munitions of war,” and Serrano spent the next two years of his life fighting to recover his truck.
Asset forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize and then sell property that it alleges was used in a crime. While criminal forfeiture can only occur after the property’s owner has been convicted of a crime, this is not the case for civil forfeiture. Anya Bidwell, an attorney with the Institute for Justice who represented Serrano in his fight for his truck, confirmed that her client had faced no charges in connection with this case.
“That’s exactly the problem with civil forfeiture. There is no requirement for charges, let alone a criminal conviction,” she said.
The ACLU has called civil forfeiture “tantamount to policing for profit,” saying law enforcement can use it as a tool to bolster department budgets under the guise of combating crime.
By contrast, criminal forfeiture can only occur after the property’s owner has been convicted of a crime. The SEACATS database includes both civil and criminal asset seizures, but the breakdown is unclear.
“The process begins when an enforcement action results in an arrest, or when property is seized by CBP or ICE, and includes supporting information, such as: the violation, property description, quantities, and violator,” reads a SEACATS Privacy Impact Assessment from 2017. “Once an arrest or seizure case is initiated, the initiating officer must submit the incident report in SEACATS to his or her supervisor within 24 hours of the arrest.”
Last October, The Intercept published excerpts from ICE’s 2010 Homeland Security Investigations Handbook, which provides tips to agents about how to use various laws to justify seizing property. The handbook reads: “As a general rule, if total liabilities and costs incurred in seizing a real property or business exceed the value of the property, the property should not be seized.”
It outlines how immigration agents can maximize profit through strategic seizures that are profitable, rather than wasting time and resources on lesser value assets, which it calls liabilities.
Serrano’s pickup truck was valued at just under $40,000 at the time it was seized in 2015—a drop in the bucket for the budgets of agencies like CBP and ICE. But his was just one of the more than 1,000 trucks ICE and CBP seized in 2015 alone, along with ambulances, buses, tankers, and vans.
The property is transferred to the Department of the Treasury, which may facilitate the disposal of some assets. Bombs, for example, are turned over to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives for disposal, according to CBP.
“In general, the determination of whether seized property is destroyed, donated or sold at auction is determined by the type of property we’re talking about,” the CBP spokesperson wrote. “For example, typically counterfeit products are destroyed, primary because of potential harmful/ unknown substances used in their manufacture (i.e. lead paint), but also due to trademark infringement. However, vehicles/parts can be sold at auction. Any item which is illegal, such as illegal drugs and certain weapons, is destroyed by the appropriate agency (for example, ATF).”
Some assets, like real estate, are sold at auction by the Department of the Treasury. When asked about what happens to seized cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, the CBP spokesperson said, “The virtual currency is not ‘cashed out,’ they are held until forfeited. Then it is sold at auction.”
It’s unclear how the agencies gain access to cryptocurrency wallets, and an ICE spokesperson declined to comment on criminal investigative tactics. But other federal agencies have sold cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin at auction.
The U.S. Marshals Service had held six Bitcoin auctions as of earlier this year. Participating in the auctions required a $200,000 deposit, which would be returned to non-winning bidders. The forfeited coin was sold in blocks, such as of 500 and 100 Bitcoin.
Of ICE and CBP’s thousands upon thousands of seizures, it’s unclear how many people are able to ultimately recover their property. Doing so can require long and oftentimes expensive legal battles. Serrano ultimately recovered his seized truck back from immigration authorities, but he also filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of other U.S. citizens who had their vehicles seized by CBP.
“The government keeps the property, and the second there is a lawsuit, the government just gives this one item back, and continues with business as usual,” said Serrano’s attorney, Bidwell. Serrano and Bidwell aimed through their suit to require CBP to provide a prompt hearing when the agency seizes vehicles.
Although a federal judge dismissed Serrano’s lawsuit at the end of September, the Institute for Justice is appealing the decision.
Bidwell highlighted the importance of continuing to fight forfeiture abuses for as long as they exist. “No one should have to lose their property without being convicted of, let alone charged with, a crime,” she said.
Camille Fassett is a reporter at Freedom of the Press Foundation and a researcher at Lucy Parsons Labs. Freddy Martinez is a technologist who researches the government using public records. He was previously a Mozilla/Ford Open Web Fellow hosted at Freedom of the Press Foundation.