Driving a Drug Dealer’s Car

Law enforcement agencies can use asset forfeiture to snare unmarked narcotics cars.

March 2014, Government Fleet - Feature

by Paul Clinton - Also by this author

Law enforcement agencies seize a wide variety of vehicles including trucks, SUVs, and classic muscle cars. Photo courtesy of DEA
Law enforcement agencies seize a wide variety of vehicles including trucks, SUVs, and classic muscle cars. Photo courtesy of DEA
At a Glance
Law enforcement agencies have different rules about keeping vehicles seized during drug busts:
  • Forfeited vehicles make up less than 20% of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s fleet
  • The City of Chicago repurposes as many as 75 seized vehicles as narcotics enforcement vehicles each year
  • Agencies in some states, such as California, aren’t allowed to repurpose forfeited vehicles themselves, but can use them if they’re provided by federal agencies.

Narcotics officers need everyday vehicles that blend into the surroundings of the scofflaws they’re targeting. As a result, law enforcement agencies issue vehicles that are both familiar to the driving public and free from police markings. These widely driven vehicles might include Toyota Corolla sedans, Ford F-150 pickups, or Chevrolet Malibu sedans.

Civilian-type vehicles often slip off the radar of law enforcement vehicle acquisition that prioritizes marked black-and-white units and the gear needed to equip these patrol vehicles. While government fleet managers can acquire unmarked vehicles from dealers or at used-car auctions, a third option guarantees that the undercover officer will be driving a car familiar to a drug dealer — he will likely be driving a drug dealer’s car.

A legal process known as asset forfeiture allows municipal, county, or state agencies to acquire vehicles seized during the commission of a crime and place them into the agency’s fleet as a weapon against the criminal networks that once used the vehicle to transport illicit drugs, cash, or firearms.

Several states have passed laws banning police use of forfeited vehicles, but agencies outside the purview of those laws use criminal, civil, or administrative forfeiture to fight crime. Criminal forfeiture is most common of the three; vehicle ownership is transferred to the agency following a jury verdict and court order. In civil forfeiture, agencies can seize the vehicle faster by filing legal action that essentially indicts the property rather than the criminal defendant. In administrative forfeiture, no court action is required. In this highly controversial method, a federal agency can seize the vehicle under the Tariff Act of 1930 if it was used to import, transport, or store a controlled substance.

Drug Vehicles Join Police Fleets

As a matter of agency policy, the nation’s top drug-fighting agency prefers criminal forfeiture. Forfeited vehicles make up less than 20% of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) fleet but provide a needed tool, said Special Agent Joseph Moses, an agency spokesman.

The DEA prohibits official use of any seized vehicle until a court order finalizes forfeiture and transfers ownership to the agency. During the process, the vehicles are warehoused and maintained by the U.S. Marshals Service. The DEA usually acquires title six months to a year following the seizure. Checks and balances have been built into the system to thwart misconduct.

“We record and track the vehicles as official inventory during this process,” Moses said. “Vehicles don’t just disappear into a warehouse.”

The City of Chicago also uses criminal forfeiture permitted by Section 1505 of the Illinois Controlled Substances Act. The city repurposes as many as 75 seized vehicles as narcotics enforcement vehicles each year in its aptly named “1505 program.” At any one time, the Chicago Police Department maintains between 240 and 260 seized vehicles, which account for about 5% of the total police fleet. The department’s Organized Crime unit handles any initial maintenance and the storage of the seized vehicles.

Most of the vehicles seized during law enforcement operations head to the auction block. Those singled out as candidates for repurposing usually come from a wide spectrum of makes and models. They must also meet certain criteria, including having a lien-free title, U.S. registration, and needing little maintenance. So-called “grey market” vehicles registered in other countries head to auction.

In its fight against Mexican drug cartels, pharmaceutical rings, and other wide-ranging criminal networks, the DEA will sometimes seize exotic luxury vehicles. In 2011, as part of Operation Pill Nation, DEA agents seized 49 vehicles including a Lamborghini, Ferrari, Bentley convertible, Ford GT40, and several Mercedes-Benzes. Most of these high-priced vehicles head to auction; however, a few are kept as “special purpose vehicles” when agents need a flashy, high-end vehicle for an operation.

A quick visit to the U.S. Marshals asset forfeiture website in late January shows a Southern California auction of a 2009 Lamborghini Mercielago, 2010 Porsche Panamera, and 1965 Ford Thunderbird.

Narcotics operations involving the DEA are usually run through regional task forces because they cross jurisdictional boundaries. As such, municipal, county, and sometimes state agencies share forfeiture proceeds and vehicles. The DEA has been known to hand over vehicles to participating agencies that request them, Moses said.


  1. 1. Armando [ March 20, 2014 @ 10:22AM ]

    Good article, through my auction company, we service both municpal, county, state agencies in California and we currently contract with the USMS in Northern California to store, maintain, and auction seizures done by DEA, FBI, ATF and other federal agencies. Some vehicles are destroyed or sold as salvage because of the amount of damage done while uncovering hidden compartments. It has been a pleasure working with the USMS in working with them in the auction disposal method. Thank you.

  2. 2. Joe Poe [ August 27, 2015 @ 08:01AM ]

    Want to buy seized vehicle planes and boats

  3. 3. Rolando [ February 07, 2017 @ 08:43PM ]

    I was wondering, where or what is the website to buy this cars.

  4. 4. Preston Artis [ June 23, 2017 @ 01:44PM ]

    Where can I find this auction

  5. 5. Preston Artis [ June 23, 2017 @ 01:45PM ]

    Preston Artis

  6. 6. Jeffrey White [ March 01, 2018 @ 05:38PM ]

    Looking for a good Truck at s good price thank you

  7. 7. Jeffrey White [ March 01, 2018 @ 05:40PM ]

    Looking for a good Truck at a good price thank you


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