by Ryan Devereaux and Spencer Woodman, The Intercept:
AN INTERNAL HANDBOOK obtained by The Intercept provides a rare view into the extensive asset seizure operations of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations, an office that trains its agents to meticulously appraise the value of property before taking it.
HSI’s 71-page “Asset Forfeiture Handbook,” dated June 30, 2010, underscores the role seizures play in “helping to fund future law enforcement actions” and covering costs “that HSI would otherwise be unable to fund.” It thus offers an unprecedented window into ICE’s wide-ranging asset forfeiture operations and the premium the agency places on seizing valuable property. Forfeiture proceeds can bolster ICE’s partnerships with local police departments, which are now the subject of heightened debate given the Trump administration’s hard-line immigration agenda.
ICE confirmed to The Intercept that the handbook reflects the agency’s most up-to-date guidance on asset forfeiture. Agents under its instruction are asked to weigh the competing priorities of law enforcement versus financial profit and to “not waste instigative time and resources” on assets it calls “liabilities” — which include properties that are not profitable enough for the federal government to justify seizing. “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,” the document states.
The handbook also instructs ICE agents on the various ways laws can be used to justify the seizure of a property, and devotes a significant portion of its pages to the seizure of real estate. 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.
The handbook acknowledges that civil forfeiture can be used to take property from a person even when there’s not enough evidence for a criminal indictment. There “may be third party interest that would prevail in a criminal case, but would not survive in a civil proceeding, making the civil proceeding essential to forfeiture,” the handbook states, referencing a property owner not officially implicated in a crime. “Those situations generally occur when a property owner is not convicted of a crime but is also not an innocent owner. Under criminal forfeiture, that property owner would be entitled to the return of the property. Under civil forfeiture, however, the owner would lose his or her interest to the Government.”
Noting that ICE is not alone among federal agencies in relying on asset forfeiture, ICE spokesperson Danielle Bennett told The Intercept in a statement, “Asset forfeiture is an essential element of comprehensive and effective law enforcement as it deprives transnational criminal organizations of their illicitly obtained assets. The forfeiture of assets can be and is utilized as a sanction in criminal, civil, and administrative investigative activities.”
THE DEPARTMENT OF Homeland Security has seized billions of dollars in assets over the last decade, with the bulk of the revenue coming from investigations overseen by ICE. While the agency is best known for its role in immigration enforcement — carried out chiefly by officers in its Enforcement and Removal Operations division — its lesser-known HSI component has a much broader mandate, enforcing more than 400 criminal statutes with a nexus between cross-border crime and transnational criminal organizations, including human trafficking and smuggling, child pornography, terrorism, counterfeit goods, and drug smuggling. With more than 6,000 agents working in 185 field offices across the country and 63 locations overseas, HSI has the second-largest number of federal agents on the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces and has played a key role in numerous high-stakes investigations over the years. To fulfill its missions, which often involve undercover infiltrations, multi-year probes, and occasionally multimillion-dollar seizures, HSI agents have access to powerful intelligence and data systems that link federal law enforcement to the CIA and the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency.
Despite its size and the sweeping scope of its work, HSI has managed to maintain a low profile in comparison to some of its federal counterparts. With the Trump White House turning virtually every undocumented immigrant in the country into a target for deportation, ICE’s role in law enforcement has become a topic of intense public debate and increasingly pulled HSI out of the shadows. The handbook obtained by The Intercept now offers a unique window into a key component of the agency’s quiet investigations.
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