This police stop and search ending in the seizure of more than $100,000 is at the center of a federal civil rights lawsuit in which the motorists claim they have been victims of unreasonable tactics. (Screen grab from video provided by Iowa State Police)

Federal drug enforcement officials have issued a new code of conduct for highway police across the country intended to help curb the number of questionable civil seizures of cash and property from motorists.

Senior officials in the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program said they are doing so to remind local and state police about the need to honor Constitutional values and the civil rights of motorists. The code is voluntary.

The code emphasizes the importance of traffic safety and the restrained use of an aggressive enforcement technique known as “highway interdiction,” which often involves large numbers of traffic stops by officers looking for drugs, illicit cash and other contraband.

The code, a series of bullet points, was issued last month to hundreds of officials at the national conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Orlando.

“Emphasize interdiction programs are NOT purposed for enhancing agency budgets,” the document says. “Underscore forfeited ill-gotten proceeds be spent prudently in accordance with applicable statutes, sound policies and regulations.”

HIDTA operates as a program within the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Formed during the drug wars in the late 1980s, it provides financial assistance and coordination for local, state, federal and tribal law enforcement agencies. There are 28 active HIDTA operations nationwide.

Leaders of the program have been considering questions about highway interdiction and the development of a new code for several years. They moved forward with their “21st Century Interdiction Code of Conduct” after a recent Washington Post investigation found that local and state police had seized more than $2.5 billion in cash from motorists and others since Sept. 11, 2001, without warrants or indictments.

In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, an aggressive brand of policing called "highway interdiction," which involves authorities seizing money and property during traffic stops, has grown in popularity. Thousands of people not charged with crimes are left fighting legal battles to regain their money.  (Gabe Silverman/The Washington Post)

Those seizures were made through an asset forfeiture program at the Justice Department, that allows local police to take cash and property under federal civil law without proving a crime has occurred. The program, Equitable Sharing, allows the local agencies to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds.

Many of the seizures were conducted by officers trained in highway interdiction. HIDTA officials said the technique is important to the fight drug trafficking and other crime. “It’s a legitimate and very effective tool,” said Kurt Schmid, director of the HIDTA office in Chicago.

But Schmid and others said some officers may be using the technique to pad local police budgets through forfeited proceeds rather than pursuing criminal cases or focusing on traffic safety.

“We felt the need to stake out another position here. It’s not all about ‘policing for profit,’” said Jack Killoran, director of the HIDTA office in Atlanta. “This is the product of a very robust conversation.”

The ten-point code is written as a pledge. It says that “members of the Domestic Highway Enforcement (DHE) community” recognize they must adhere to the “highest standards of integrity and ethical principals in the performance of traffic safety enforcement activities.” It describes highway interdiction is an “ancillary endeavor;

The code also addresses the use of informal intelligence networks to share unofficial reports about suspect drivers sometimes without evidence of a crime.Thousands of officers have tapped into these systems in recent years. But they have been controversial among some police.

Schmid, Killoran and others worried that police using the intelligence networks may be unknowingly violating their departments’ rules or the laws governing the sharing of personal and law enforcement sensitive information.

“Potentially, these officers who were filing these reports, they were violating the law,” Schmid said.

The code says that information sharing must be consistent with local, state and federal laws and that personal data must be “lawfully obtained, shared, appropriately stored and available for disclosure/discovery” in criminal cases.