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.
Before he made it to California, however, Rivers fell victim to a legal form of government highway robbery.
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.
“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 told the Journal. “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.”
Rivers, who has since returned to Michigan, fell victim to civil asset forfeiture, a legal tool that has been criticized as a violation of due process and a contradiction of the idea that criminal defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Asset forfeiture allows police to seize property they suspect is related to criminal activity, without even charging its owner with a crime. The charges are filed against the property itself -- including cash, jewelry, cars and houses -- which can then be sold, with part of the proceeds flowing back to the department that made the seizure.
“We don’t have to prove that the person is guilty,” Sean Waite, the agent in charge at the DEA's Albuquerque's office, told the Journal. “It’s that the money is presumed to be guilty.”
The burden of proof lies with those whose property is taken, who often are forced to wage costly court battles to prove they came by their possessions legally.
That's where Michael Pancer, a San Diego attorney who now represents Rivers, comes in.
“What this is, is having your money stolen by a federal agent acting under the color of law,” Pancer told the Journal. “It’s a national epidemic. If my office got four to five cases just recently, and I’m just one attorney, you know this is happening thousands of times.”
Pancer is challenging the DEA asset forfeiture on Rivers' behalf, and wrote in a letter to Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), obtained by The Huffington Post, that Rivers' race "played a role in the incident." Conyers' office wouldn't comment on active litigation.
A February report by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian group that focuses on civil liberties, showed how widespread civil asset forfeiture has become. The federal program led to nearly $6.8 billion in seized cash and property from 2008 to 2013, the report says. A series in The Washington Post published last year showed that since 2001, $2.5 billion had been seized in cash alone -- all from people who were never charged with a crime and without a warrant being issued.
While law enforcement officials argue that civil asset forfeiture is an important weapon for fighting the drug trade, stories like Rivers' emerge regularly, suggesting that plenty of innocent people have become collateral damage.
Take the case of Matt Lee, 31, who in 2011 was pulled over by police in Nevada while on the last leg of a cross-country move from Michigan to California. In an ensuing K-9 search, police discovered $2,400 in cash, loaned to Lee by his father. Though officers had no proof of any connection to a crime -- Lee had never even been arrested before -- they seized the cash and left Lee with $151. Lee later hired a lawyer, and the county eventually agreed to return his money. By then, his legal fees had reached $1,269, leaving Lee with less than half of the money that had been taken from him.
Civil asset forfeiture isn't just being used to take down big-time drug dealers. A recent study by the Drug Policy Alliance on the practice in California found that the average value of a state forfeiture in 2013 was $5,145, adjusted to 1992 dollars. This number has changed little since 1992, when 94 percent of state forfeitures involved seizures of $5,000 or less.
A DEA list of recently seized property, released on Thursday, reflects this trend, listing seizures of a few hundred dollars alongside high-value items and cash.
Growing criticism of civil asset forfeiture has led to calls for change in some states. In New Mexico, where Rivers' money was seized, Gov. Susana Martinez (R) signed a set of reforms last month that will effectively end the most controversial use of the practice by police at state level. In Montana, a new law will scale back civil asset forfeiture by state and local police.
But these reforms don't affect the ability of federal agents to seize property under federal rules, meaning we will likely continue to see stories like Rivers'.