After scraping together enough money to produce a music video in Hollywood, 22-year-old Joseph Rivers set out last month on a train trip from Michigan to Los Angeles, hoping it was the start of something big.
Rivers changed trains at the Amtrak station in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on April 15, with bags containing his clothes, other possessions and an envelope filled with the $16,000 in cash he had raised with the help of his family, the Albuquerque Journal reports. Agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration got on after him and began looking for people who might be trafficking drugs.
Rivers said the agents questioned passengers at random, asking for their destination and reason for travel. When one of the agents got to Rivers, who was the only black person in his car, according to witnesses, the agent took the interrogation further, asking to search his bags. Rivers complied. The agent found the cash — still in a bank envelope — and decided to seize it on suspicion that it may be tied to narcotics. River pleaded with the agents, explaining his situation and even putting his mother on the phone to verify the story.
Leaving aside the unsavory hint of racial profiling, there’s the fact that the DEA helped itself to cash simply because it was cash. It had no reason to suspect Rivers of anything, but the money was apparently too much to pass up. Even having his story corroborated was useless. And, sure, the DEA agents had no reason to believe anyone Rivers put them in touch with was a trustworthy source of information. (After all, he’s some sort of drug dealer, right?) But to grant the DEA the benefit of the doubt for its refusal to believe Rivers’ mother’s statements is to cut the agents an absurd amount of slack for everything preceding that.
Because what did the DEA actually have here? A young guy and $16,000 in cash. According to the DEA’s own statements, it doesn’t need anything more than that to effect an asset seizure. And, according to the DEA’s own statements, it has no reason to bother with anything more than a cursory look that “confirms” what it wants it to confirm.
[Sean] Waite [DEA – Albuquerque] said that in general DEA 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.
If we leave it to the DEA to define drug activity “hot spots,” it becomes any destination any traveler is headed to, especially if there’s seizable cash involved. As for story inconsistencies, we’re back to “eye of the beholder” territory. If agents are motivated to perform asset seizures,any story can be found to have enough flaws to justify the forfeiture. Waite’s statement is very unhelpful, other than to show how completely screwed up asset forfeiture programs are.
As if on cue — and as if the DEA’s Sean Waite is completely unaware of the level of scrutiny and negative public opinion centered on asset forfeiture programs — he delivers the most tone-deaf of talking points:
“We don’t have to prove that the person is guilty,” Waite said. “It’s that the money is presumed to be guilty.”
Boom. There’s your problem. Or rather, Rivers’ problem. And the problem of far too many Americans who made the mistake of leaving home with cash on their person. The government doesn’t need to prove shit. It can just take and take and take and force those wronged by its “presumptions” to jump through multiple expensive and mostly futile hoops if they hope to recover their “guilty” belongings.
So, what do you tell people like Rivers? “Don’t carry cash?” Cash is universal and accepted everywhere. But it’s also apparently inherently guilty. Just don’t carry large amounts of cash? From Virginia’s asset forfeiture stats:
Contrary to the oft-stated defense that these programs are necessary to cripple powerful drug lords and multimillion dollar fraudsters, more than half the cash seized from 2001-2006 fell in the $614-1,288 range and the average worth of vehicles seized has hovered at about $6,000.
A City Paper review of 100 cases from 2011 and 2012 found the median amount of cash seized by the District Attorney was only $178.
Any cash is inherently suspicious and can be deemed “guilty” by the seizing agency with no corroborating evidence. $16,000 has just made its way into the DEA’s funds and if Rivers wants it back, he’s likely going to lose a great deal of it to legal fees. He’s currently trying to raise the money the DEA took from him via crowdfunding site GoFundMe. Hopefully, he’ll get another chance to make his music video without being sidelined by government agents looking to bust some “guilty” cash.