The Injustice of Civil-Asset Forfeiture

The latest victim: a 22-year-old who set off to start a new life with $16,000 to his name, only to have it all seized by the DEA.

Rick Wilking / Reuters

Joseph Rivers left his hometown of Romulus, Michigan, boarded a train, and headed for Los Angeles, California, where he hoped to become a music-video producer. The 22-year-old says he’d been saving money for years to make the trip and that his mother had scraped together some additional cash to help him get his start.

In total he carried $16,000.

At the Amtrak station in Albuquerque, New Mexico, men boarded the train and seized his money, leaving him penniless and without means to go on to L.A. or return home.

They were federal employees.

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Federal-law enforcement officials frequently seize money and other property at the point of a gun from Americans who’ve neither been charged nor convicted of any crime. The term meant to give this a veneer of legitimacy is “civil-asset forfeiture.” That day in New Mexico, it was the Drug Enforcement Administration that made the seizure.

The Albuquerque Journal relates the account given by the victim’s lawyer, Michael Pancer:

A DEA agent boarded the train at the Albuquerque Amtrak station 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. He was the only passenger singled out for a search by DEA agents – and the only black person on his portion of the train, Pancer said. In one of the bags, the agent found the cash, still in the Michigan bank envelope. “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 officers decided to take my money because he stated that he believed that the money was involved in some type of narcotic activity.”

Rivers was left penniless, his dream deferred.

“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 said in his email. “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.”

Other travelers had witnessed what happened. One of them, a New Mexico man I’ve written about before but who asked that I not mention his name, provided a way for Rivers to get home, contacted attorneys – and me. “He was literally like my guardian angel that came out of nowhere,” Rivers said.

I spoke briefly with Prancer by phone. He says he is very confident in the challenge to the seizure and doesn’t anticipate any compelling evidence from the DEA. Of course, that’s just one side of the story. What does the DEA say in its defense? Sean Waite, the agent in charge for the DEA in Albuquerque, also talked to the newspaper:

Waite 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.

“We don’t have to prove that the person is guilty,” Waite said. “It’s that the money is presumed to be guilty.”

That ostensible defense highlights what’s wrong here. Guilt was presumed, something that ought to be self-evidently anathema to any criminal-justice system. And it was presumed of money, which makes no sense. Inanimate objects cannot be guilty. Nonetheless, Rivers is now in the position of having to pay a lawyer to fight the DEA for his own life savings. (He’s raised a bit of charity to survive in the meantime.)

His victimization is far from unique.

Civil-asset forfeiture abuses are so obvious, widespread, and longstanding that they’ve been denounced by an array people and groups that typically disagree. The Nation and National Review have highlighted these abuses. So have The Center for American Progress and The Heritage Foundation. So have HBO’s John Oliver and Fox News.

Various states have already reformed their laws.

If a federal reform is to pass in the near future it is likely to be legislation introduced by Senator Rand Paul and Congressman Tim Walberg. In titling their bill the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act, they’re nodding to the fact that legislation should’t be required to end these abuses; they clearly violate the Bill of Rights.

“No person shall … be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” the Fifth Amendment states, “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” What constitutes depriving a person of their property without due process if not taking all their money with no evidence that they’ve committed any crime on the pretext that you’re presuming the money to be guilty?

For more examples of law enforcement repeatedly victimizing innocent people with this execrable tactic, check out Sarah Stillman’s reporting in The New Yorker, Radley Balko at Reason, Kyla Dunn at PBS, and the valuable information assembled by the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm that fights the practice. And here is a federal law enforcement agency’s perspective on the practice.