Joseph Rivers, a 22-year-old Michigan resident, was on his way to Los Angeles in April to fulfill his dream of becoming a music video producer, according to Rivers and his lawyer, when federal agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) boarded his Amtrak train during a stop in Albuquerque.
DEA agents approached Rivers, the only black passenger in the train car, and asked to search his bag. Inside the bag, agents found $16,000 in cash—money Rivers said he had saved up and received from family members to pursue his music video aspirations.
The agents detained Rivers and asked him about the cash. According to Rivers and his lawyer, Michael Pancer, a San Diego-based attorney, Rivers had the agents call his mother to confirm his story, but the DEA nevertheless seized his money, believing it was somehow connected with drugs.
The DEA agents then released Rivers, leaving him penniless in Albuquerque. He was never charged with a crime. The incident, first reported by the Albuquerque Journal, is the latest case to highlight the practice of civil asset forfeiture.
Under civil asset forfeiture laws, police and federal agents can seize property on the mere suspicion that it is connected to criminal activity. The property owner does not even have to be charged with a crime, since asset forfeiture is technically an action against the property itself.
"We don’t have to prove that the person is guilty," Sean Waite, the head of the DEA’s Albuquerque office, told the Albuquerque Journal. "It’s that the money is presumed to be guilty."
Civil asset forfeiture became a popular tool in the 1980s among police and prosecutors for disrupting organized crime, especially drug trafficking, but since then the practice has ballooned, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars for local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies across the country.
Civil rights advocates say the civil asset forfeiture process is riddled with perverse incentives and lax oversight, leading everyday citizens to have their cash, cars, and even homes seized without being charged with crimes.
The Washington Post reported in an investigative series last year that federal, state, and local law enforcement agents have seized $2.5 billion in cash since 2001 from nearly 62,000 people.
"In the last couple years, I’ve seen four or five [asset forfeiture] cases, and I’m only one lawyer, so I think it’s an epidemic," said Pancer, Rivers’ lawyer.
Pressure from media reports and civil rights groups led U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to announce in January that the Department of Justice would place new limits on its program that distributes asset forfeiture funds to police departments across the country.
Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) re-introduced a bill this year that would curtail federal civil asset forfeiture.
New Mexico abolished civil asset forfeiture at the state and local level earlier this year, but the new law only restricts state and local police, not federal agents.
A fellow passenger helped Rivers get back home and contacted lawyers and media about his case, according to the Journal. Pancer said his client will challenge the government’s forfeiture action.
The Albuquerque DEA office said it could not comment on the specifics of Rivers’ case, as the forfeiture process is still ongoing, but that it would present its evidence supporting the seizure in court.
"The agents must be able to articulate probable cause when taking assets from an individual," Eduardo Chavez, group supervisor at the Albuquerque DEA office, said in a statement to the Free Beacon. "At that point, they obviously felt that they did meet that criteria, and we are just going through the civil asset forfeiture process now."