DEA to traveler: Thanks, I’ll take that cash

All the money – $16,000 in cash – that Joseph Rivers said he had saved and relatives had given him to launch his dream in Hollywood is gone, seized during his trip out West not by thieves but by Drug Enforcement Administration agents during a stop at the Amtrak train station in Albuquerque… Rivers, 22, wasn’t detained and has not been charged with any crime since his money was taken last month.

That doesn’t matter. Under a federal law enforcement tool called civil asset forfeiture, he need never be arrested or convicted of a crime for the government to take away his cash, cars or property – and keep it. Agencies like the DEA can confiscate money or property if they have a hunch, a suspicion, a notion that maybe, possibly, perhaps the items are connected with narcotics. Or something else illegal. Or maybe the fact that the person holding a bunch of cash is a young black man is good enough…

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. Rivers 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…

“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.” …

DEA agents may choose to ask the person whether his or her possessions can be searched in what is called a “consensual encounter.” If the subject refuses, the bags – but not the person – can be held until a search warrant is obtained, he said. Waite said that he could not provide exact figures on how often seizures occur in Albuquerque but that last week the DEA had five “consensual encounters” that resulted in seizures…

Whatever is seized is held during an internal administrative process (read: not public) while a case is made to connect the property to narcotics. Subjects can file a claim to have the items returned – and then they wait, sometimes forever.

While travelers like Rivers still have to worry about DEA agents, state and local law enforcement in New Mexico no longer has these virtually unlimited seizure powers. Five days before Rivers’ encounter in Albuquerque, Gov. Susana Martinez signed into law a bill that bars state and local law enforcement from seizing money or property under civil asset forfeiture. The law takes effect in July.

But the new state law won’t supersede the federal law, meaning federal agencies such as the DEA are still free to take your cash on arguably the flimsiest of legal grounds…

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