Last month Joseph Rivers set out on a train trip from Michigan to Los Angeles, armed with his life savings and dreams of making it big in Hollywood. Unfortunately, before he made it to California, he fell victim to a legal form of government highway robbery.
On April 15th, 22 year old Rivers changed trains at the Amtrak station in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with bags containing his clothes, a few other possessions and an envelope that contained $16,000 in cash that he had raised with the help of his family.
The Albuquerque Journal reports that’s when agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration got on and began looking for people who might be trafficking drugs. It is routine for agents to randomly stop passengers and ask them what their destination is and their reason for travel.
However, Rivers was the only black person on the train, and according to witnesses – his interrogation went much further than anyone else’s. The agent on board requested to go through Rivers’ bag – and when the young man complied his money was seized under suspicion of being linked to the sale of narcotics.
Rivers pleaded and even offered to get his mother on the phone, but his appeals fell on deaf ears.
“These officers took everything that I had worked so hard to save and even money that was given to me by family that believed in me,” Rivers told the Journal. “I told (the DEA agents) I had no money and no means to survive in Los Angeles if they took my money. They informed me that it was my responsibility to figure out how I was going to do that.”
The incident put his dreams to a grinding halt and he is now back in Michigan.
What’s happened to him is called civil asset forfeiture; a legal tool that has been criticized as a violation of due process and a contradiction of the idea that criminal defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
According to the Huffington Post,
Asset forfeiture allows police to seize property they suspect is related to criminal activity, without even charging its owner with a crime. The charges are filed against the property itself — including cash, jewelry, cars and houses — which can then be sold, with part of the proceeds flowing back to the department that made the seizure.
“We don’t have to prove that the person is guilty,” Sean Waite, the agent in charge at the DEA’s Albuquerque’s office, told the Journal. “It’s that the money is presumed to be guilty.”
Michael Pancer, a San Diego attorney who now represents Rivers, says that’s unacceptable.
What this is, is having your money stolen by a federal agent acting under the color of law. 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.”
A recent report by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian group that focuses on civil liberties, showed how widespread civil asset forfeiture has become. The federal program has led to almost $6.8 billion in seized cash and property from 2008 to 2013, the report says.
A series in The Washington Post published last year showed that since 2001, $2.5 billion had been seized in cash alone — all from people who were never charged with a crime and without a warrant being issued.