Civil-Asset Forfeiture: Seizure of Personal Property Because You Look Guilty
In an article published on Tuesday in the
, Conor Friedersdorf writes about something that people may not know happens in this country: civil-asset forfeiture abuses—instances in which federal law enforcement seizes personal property at gun point from individuals who have not been convicted or even charged with any crime. Specifically, Friedersdorf writes about the recent case of Joseph Rivers, a 22-year-old from Romulus, Michigan, from whom Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents took his money—$16,000—with little explanation and claim that they are not legally obligated to give it back.
According to the article, in April, Rivers boarded a cross-country Amtrak train bound for Los Angeles. He was carrying with him $16,000 in cash that he and his mother had saved over the years. The money was going to be used to help him get his start in a career making music videos. But during a train station stop in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Rivers’ plans were completely derailed when DEA agents entered the train car, targeted and searched Rivers—the only black person on the train car—and seized his cash.
The agents told Rivers they believed that the money was obtained illegally—through drug activity—even though they hadn’t conducted an investigation or even detained Rivers. At Rivers’ suggestion, the DEA agents contacted the young man’s mother, who corroborated how the money was earned and how it was to be used, but to no avail. The agents carried away with them Rivers’ money. With not a single dollar to his name, he had to rely on a fellow passenger to get home.
Friedersdorf reports that civil-asset forfeiture is actually commonplace in the United States, so much so that states have started to pass laws to make it illegal because it violates constitutional rights. New Mexico is not yet one of those states.
Both Friedersdorf and the paper who originally reported the story—the
—spoke to the head agent in New Mexico’s DEA office, Sean Waite. He explained that when it comes to seizing cash, agents look for indicators, such as “whether the person bought an expensive one-way ticket with cash, if the person is traveling from or to a city known as a hot spot for drug activity, if the person’s story has inconsistencies or if the large sums of money found could have been transported by more conventional means,” wrote the
“We don’t have to prove that the person is guilty,” Waite said to the
. “It’s that the money is presumed to be guilty.”
Rivers has an attorney, Michael Pancer, who believes that the DEA is not going to have reasonable enough defense for seizing and keeping the $16,000. In the meantime, Rivers awaits his chance to do what the writer Horace Greeley advised so long ago, to “go west, young man, and grow up with the country.”
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