In a surprising twist on what starts out like a classic American dream story, Joseph Rivers just became the most recent casualty in a practice known as civil asset forfeiture, which allows law enforcement officials to take money and property from citizens, even if they haven’t been found guilty.
Rivers said good-bye to friends and family in Detroit and boarded a train to L.A. He was carrying with him $16,000 in cash which he planned to use to start a music video company. Shortly after his Amtrak train left Albuquerque, DEA agents boarded and began to question passengers on the train. Rivers believes that the fact that he was the sole black passenger on his section made him a target to agents.
The DEA agent asked Rivers his reasons for traveling, and Rivers gave him permission to search his belongings. When he found the cash, Rivers explained his reasons for carrying it. Even though his story was corroborated when the agent called his mother (Rivers had taken cash because of concerns that he might have trouble withdrawing a large sum from an out of state bank) and no traces of illegal activity were found in his belongings, the DEA agent confiscated the money.
Civil forfeiture not only allowed the DEA agent to take the cash, it also leaves the obligation to retrieve property taken from an innocent party to the citizen. While Rivers has retained a lawyer and hopes to see some of his money again, he has no guarantee in the matter.
Last year the Justice Department made $3.9 billion in civil asset seizures. Recent restrictions on the practice have been largely aimed at local jurisdictions, not DEA agents like the one who took Rivers’ seed money. New Mexico, in fact, banned the practice of civil asset forfeiture less than a week before the Albuquerque incident, but had no power to enforce the law over federal officials.
Knowing the law is a complicated process for the average citizen. Having a criminal lawyer on your side who will advocate for you through the complexities of the legal system can be one of your best assets.
How the DEA took a young man’s life savings without ever charging him with a crime, http://www.washingtonpost.com, Christopher Ingram, 11 May 2015