There you are, smalltime storeowner, operating the till, when a man
with a dog walks in. He steps to the counter and asks for a pack of
Camels. Pulling a box down from the overhead rack, you ring it up and
open the cash drawer to exchange his $10 bill for cigarettes and change.

Then, the dog barks.

Oddly enough, the man’s expression takes on a serious look as he
waves the $5 you gave him under his dog’s nose.

More barking.

Your peculiar customer then informs you that he is an off-duty
narcotics officer and his drug-sniffing dog detected dope on your dough;
could he please see the cash drawer? Confused, you think for a moment
about protesting, but — not wanting to run afoul of the law — you
comply. The dog smells drugs all over the drawer, and the officer
concludes that the money is tainted, seizing your cash drawer based upon
the suspicion that the money must have been used in connection with
illegal drug trafficking.


The first time I had ever heard such an account was from a 1992
lecture given by

Cato Institute
Executive Vice President David Boaz at

Laissez Faire Books
in San Francisco, Calif. The particular account he presented was nearly identical to the one I just fabricated.

Turns out, nabbing dope-tainted money isn’t too uncommon. One of the earliest of such cases happened back in the early 1980s when police followed a pair of Mexican nationals to Atlanta, Ga., banks. As Sacramento Bee reporter Michael G. Wagner recounts the story for a Nov. 16, 1994, article, the two were arrested after buying nearly $10,000 worth of cashier’s checks — just under the amount requiring IRS notification — and were “charged with conspiring to defraud the government in a narcotics operation.”

Prosecutors used money seized from the suspects’ transactions to prove their dastardly deed; the cash tested positive for cocaine residue.

Big deal, said their attorney, who bought a bundle of shredded money and had it checked. The tests revealed that money, purchased from U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, was tainted, too. Establishing guilt based on a standard that would indict your local Fed banker if his vaults were checked didn’t seem like a great idea, and the judge ordered the pair’s money returned.

Just last April, Broward County, Fla., sheriff’s deputies nabbed almost $1,600 from one Rosendo Louis, who was suspected of trespassing on the lot of an unoccupied house. After searching Louis, drug-sniffing dogs red-flagged Louis’ money — mostly small bills — for narcotics taint. The cops grabbed the cash — to no avail. Just this month, according to the Miami Herald, Circuit Judge Robert Lance Andrews ordered the police to give back the cash.

“It is conceivable,” ruled Andrews, “that anyone in South Florida who was carrying U.S. currency would ‘alert’ a narcotics-sniffing dog.”

To help make his point, Andrews referenced a 1985 Miami Herald story that related the results of a test involving $20 bills taken from various community leaders and checked for traces of drugs. Residues were found on the bills belonging to, among others:

  • Jeb Bush

  • The Archbishop of Miami

  • And then-Dade County State Attorney Janet Reno

“Overall,” says Miami forensic toxicologist Dr. Jay Pupko, “the money in the general circulation has been contaminated by microgram levels of cocaine.”

Not only do drug users sometimes roll up bills like straws and use them to snort lines of cocaine, but, as Pupko believes, most of the money is tainted initially by drug dealers counting stacks of bills. The taint, however, spreads quickly, as Pupko adds that even bank tellers spread the residue when sorting and tallying cash.

Cashiers and pushers shouldn’t feel too bad about it, though. There’s plenty of blame to go around — including the Federal Reserve itself.

Testing suspicions that drug-tainted money spreads quicker than either gospel or gossip in a Midwest church, Wagner reports that in 1985, DEA chemists examined money-processing machines at a U.S. District Federal Reserve Bank, “where vast amounts of currency is routinely sorted.”

The results? “In random samples of $50 and $100 bills, a third to a half of all the samples collected had cocaine,” according to one DEA chemist, who added that “it appeared that hot money was contaminating the (machine) belts, which then contaminated fresh money.”

In a test that positively resolved a 1994 case for the defendant, Pupko and fellow toxicologist Dr. William Lee Hearn collected currency from all corners of the country, including Austin, Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, New York, Pittsburgh and Seattle, even going abroad to grab U.S. bills circulating in London. All but four of the bills were tainted — 131 out of 135.

“Basically, the DEA is conceding that this is a problem,” said Pupko, “that most of the money is contaminated.”

Not that the authorities mind overly much about the taint. Filthy lucre is still lucre to them; they’ll seize it just the same. In 1999, Broward County, Fla., seized $1 million that the government has since put to use paying for various anti-drug, crime-prevention and education programs. According to the Amarillo Globe-News, on Sept. 17 Texas police seized more than $2.5 million found in the back of a tractor-trailer stopped in the Panhandle. Of course, the truck driver disavowed any connection to the cash, and, with no one stepping forward to claim it, the cash will likely be split 70-30 between the state and Parmer County. Two-point-five million dollars — who can argue with that?

Judge Andrews, perhaps.

“Appellate courts are moving in the direction I’m moving,” said Andrews in his Louis ruling, “I think (law enforcement agencies) are

abusing forfeiture statutes.
… There is a lot of money involved.”

Too much money, and the law is far too arbitrary if police only have to prove that your cash might be tainted to pinch it — never mind that the greenbacks in their own wallets are likely tainted as well. Thankfully, with the many precedents of confiscated money being returned when the charge is based solely on drug taint, police may not get to keep the cash.

But, I’m afraid, that doesn’t stop them from trying.

Related items:

Constitutional concerns

“The Lord giveth, the police taketh away”

Forget the Constitution — cops catch seizure fever.

“Subtracting the 4th Amendment, part I”

Drug-courier profiles and the assault on the Bill of Rights.

“Subtracting the 4th Amendment, part II”

Police search-and-seizure tactics endanger American liberty and ransack the Bill of Rights.

“The problem with drug raids”

No-knock raids violate the Fourth Amendment and endanger liberty.

“Yakkity yak, don’t talk smack”

A column about the drug war’s recent attacks on the First Amendment.

Religious concerns

“Blaming drugs, or people?”

Is the drug problem cause by inanimate objects like a line of coke, or the sin in our hearts?

“Drug policy and my pal, Cal”

Taking conservative columnist Cal Thomas to task for hypocritical drug stance.

“One toke over the line, sweet Jesus?”

What does the Bible say Christians should think about drugs? This column attempts an answer — and it isn’t death-by-stoning.

“Witch way on drugs?”

The follow-up column to “One toke over the line, sweet Jesus?” exploring the drug-witchcraft connection.

Straight dope: Drug war dispatches

“Look out for Big Narc”

Orange County goes Big Brother, Frisco doesn’t go fascist (yet) and bees are used in booze treatment.

“Gen. McCaffrey’s checkmate”

Rep. Campbell calls for death penalty, Colombia brings out the big guns and U.S. military can’t keep dope out of the ranks.

Other concerns

“Politicians and media hype drug fears”

Why pols and the papers blow dope out of proportion — self-advancement.

“Fat for thought”

We’ve got a war on drugs, why not fatty foods?

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