It’s called “civil asset forfeiture,” a federal law enforcement tool that allows agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) — part of the Justice Department — to seize cash or property they think might somehow be connected to criminal activity. Even if there’s no specific evidence of a crime and no charges are filed — without a warrant and without an indictment — the DEA can take what it wants. According to an article in the Albuquerque Journal, a 22-year-old man headed to Hollywood to make a music video found out the hard way about the peril of traveling with a wad of cash that a suspicious DEA agent can simply confiscate.
Joseph Rivers was reportedly riding the train from Michigan to California, carrying with him $16,000 in cash to pay for the production of a music video. The money, he said, had come from his own savings as well as from relatives who wanted to support Rivers’ dream of becoming a video producer. During a stop on April 15th at the Amtrak station in Albuquerque — a place where a lot of such seizures are said to take place: “A DEA agent boarded the train…and began asking various passengers, including Rivers, where they were going and why. When Rivers replied that he was headed to LA to make a music video, the agent asked to search his bags. Rivers complied.”
That’s when the federal agent came across the cash and declared he was keeping it because it might have somehow been involved in an illicit drug deal. Rivers said he protested, assuring the DEA officer that the money had nothing at all to do with drug activity.
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“’I even allowed him to call my mother, a military veteran and (hospital) coordinator, to corroborate my story,’ Rivers said. ‘Even with all of this, the officer decided to take my money because he stated that he believed that the money was involved in some type of narcotic activity.’”
Rivers said that left him penniless and unable to take care of himself. He struggled to find a way back home to Michigan.
The article in the Journal quotes the agent in charge of the DEA in Albuquerque, Sean Waite, who told the reporter that a suspicion is enough for his agents to act on in seizing cash from someone like Joseph Rivers, who happened to be a young black man from an urban area in Michigan on his way to the West Coast.
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“’We don’t have to prove that the person is guilty,’ Waite said. ‘It’s that the money is presumed to be guilty.’”
A California attorney who is now representing Rivers in his attempt to recover the $16,000 says that such cases are nothing new to him.
“What this is, is having your money stolen by a federal agent acting under the color of law,” said Michael Pancer, a San Diego attorney who represents Rivers, an aspiring music video producer. “It’s a national epidemic. If my office got four to five cases just recently, and I’m just one attorney, you know this is happening thousands of times.”
The piece in the Albuquerque Journal makes note of a Washington Post investigation from 2014 that discovered just how widespread this sort of practice by the DEA–as well as state and local law enforcement–is: “local, state and federal agents nationwide have seized $2.5 billion in cash from almost 62,000 people since 2001 – without warrants or indictments. It’s unknown how many got their money back.”
Ironically, five days before Rivers lost his money to the DEA, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez signed a law preventing state and local authorities from seizing money under civil asset forfeiture. That state law, however, doesn’t affect the case of Joseph Rivers, who is still trying to recover his money and revive his dream.
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