Asset Forfeiture Money is Funding the Surveillance State

A recent report shows how police have purchased a huge arsenal of surveillance equipment with proceeds from asset forfeiture.

Information gathered through public records requests by the Chicago Reader reveals how the Chicago Police Department utilizes money collected through civil asset forfeiture to secretly fund the purchase of intrusive surveillance equipment. The staggering amount of money collected by the CPD and the spy gear it has funded underscores the need for both asset forfeiture reform, and strict limits on the acquisition and use of surveillance equipment such as stingrays and automatic license plate readers (ALPRs).

The Reader worked with the Chicago-based transparency nonprofit Lucy Parsons Labs and the public records website MuckRock to obtain more than 1,000 pages of CPD documents, including deposit and expenditure ledgers, internal e-mails and purchasing records.

The CPD began keeping electronic records of its forfeiture proceeds in 2009. Since that time, the department took in nearly $72 million in cash. Of that amount, the CPD kept nearly $47 million. This money makes up a slush fund the department can spend without any oversight or accountability.

"The Chicago Police Department doesn’t disclose its forfeiture income or expenditures to the public, and doesn’t account for it in its official budget. Instead, CPD’s Bureau of Organized Crime, the division tasked with drug- and gang-related investigations, oversees the forfeiture fund in what amounts to a secret budget—an off-the-books stream of income used to supplement the bureau’s public budget. The Reader found that CPD uses civil forfeiture funds to finance many of the day-to-day operations of its narcotics unit and to secretly purchase controversial surveillance equipment without public scrutiny or City Council oversight…

Income obtained through civil forfeiture falls outside the bounds of normal accountability. This secret budget isn’t scrutinized by the City Council, nor must CPD make any public disclosures about how these funds are spent. While the additional income is small compared to the department’s full budget, CPD’s forfeiture account is controlled entirely by the Bureau of Organized Crime. The extra $4.7 million to $9.3 million collected annually through forfeitures between 2009 and 2015 adds substantially to the bureau’s ledger."

To put the numbers into perspective, asset forfeiture money accounts for 6 percent of the department’s total budget.

So, what do the Chicago police spend this money on?

A large chunk of it goes toward normal operating expenses such as car rentals, cell phone bills, computers, squad cars and radios. But the department spent more than $1.8 million secretly purchasing surveillance gear. The exact nature of some of the purchases remains unclear because information on the purchase orders was redacted. For instance, the department paid Black Widow Surveillance $5220 in July 2010. The name of the item purchased was blacked out, so we don’t know what it was. But we do know some of the surveillance equipment the CPD acquired including:

  • Cell Site Simulator ($417,705)
  • Cell phone metadata ($878,317.57)
  • Cameras ($248,182.65)
  • Blue Light Cameras [pole mounted surveillance cameras] ($205,000.00)
  • GPS trackers ($93,012.80)

Additionally, according to the Reader, “an April 2015 e-mail sent by a sergeant in CPD and the city’s shared technology unit indicates that four of the department’s ALPR units were paid for with forfeiture proceeds. A stand-alone ALPR system, also purchased with forfeiture money, was installed at Homan Square in 2010, according to a payment sheet obtained by the Reader.”

The cell site simulator the CPD secretly bought may rank as the most controversial purchase. Commonly known as “stingrays,” cell site simulators essentially spoof cell phone towers, tricking any device within range into connecting to the stingray instead of the tower, allowing law enforcement to sweep up communications content, as well as locate and track the person in possession of a specific phone or other electronic device.

Earlier this year, the Illinois legislature passed a law placing strict limits on the use of stingrays. The new law prohibits the use of cell site simulators except to locate or track the location of a communications device or to identify a communications device. That means law enforcement cannot listen in on conversations using cell site simulators under any circumstances.The law stipulates that before deploying a stingray device for location tracking, law enforcement agencies must get a warrant, with only a few exceptions. Warrantless use of these devices will only be allowed in certain specific emergency situations.

The state clearly needs to place similar restrictions on ALPRs. But when police departments can purchase this type of surveillance technology secretly, off the books, with no oversight, strict laws limiting their use become meaningless. If nobody knows police have this technology, how can anybody control how officers use it?

This underscores the need for reform of the state’s asset forfeiture laws. The only way to ensure police can’t use these funds to purchase spy gear is to ensure they simply don’t have access to the funds.

ACLU of Illinois policy lawyer Ben Ruddell has spent more than a year studying the the state’s asset forfeiture laws and working to draft a reform bill. He told the Reader he hopes to introduce the legislation in the 2017 session. He said a key element to the reform will be removing law enforcement control over forfeiture money.

“Other states have passed legislation to mitigate this incentive by requiring forfeiture income to go toward the general operating budget of the municipality or state, or into special funds for education or drug treatment. As it stands, CPD is free to use its forfeiture income at will, and outside of the public eye.”

It is imperative that any effort to reform asset forfeiture laws include provisions to close a federal loophole that allows law enforcement agencies to simply pass off cases to the feds. By placing the case under federal jurisdiction, law enforcement can bypass more strict state law and collect up to 80 percent of the proceeds from forfeited assets via the federal Equitable Sharing Program. To close this loophole, reforms should include language barring state and local law enforcement agencies from passing off cases to the feds.

California serves as a great example of the relationship between federal and state asset forfeiture. State prosecutors and law enforcement agencies have regularly utilized the loophole, and as previously reported by the Tenth Amendment Center, the federal government even inserted itself into California’s asset forfeiture debate. Despite strong law enforcement lobbying, California Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed asset forfeiture reform into law that slams the federal loophole shut.

Activists in Illinois can expect similar opposition as they seek to reform the state’s asset forfeiture laws. The Reader summarizes the intense opposition to upsetting the status quo.

"There’s also the assemblage of prosecutor and police associations—including the Illinois State’s Attorneys Association and the Illinois Drug Enforcement Officers Association—and their allies in the legislature, which want to ensure that civil forfeiture can continue unabated. Recent reform legislation in Springfield has been met with opposition from these groups, as well as from the Cook County state’s attorney’s office."

It will take a concerted grassroots effort to reform Illinois asset forfeiture laws and stop the flow money into police department coffers. But it is absolutely essential, not only to protect individual’s property and restore due process, but to stop police from growing the surveillance state using secret slush funds.