It apparently is no longer safe to carry large sums of cash with you when you travel in America.
Joseph Rivers learned this lesson the hard way when the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) took his entire life’s savings — $16,000 — while he was riding on an Amtrak train in April to Los Angeles. The 22 year old is an aspiring music video producer.
Like many drivers, Rivers was never arrested or charged with a crime. Instead, DEA agents used civil asset forfeiture law to seize the cash he was carrying on a passenger train he had boarded in Michigan. Agents entered the train in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The agents took the cash after asking Rivers a series of questions. When he told them he was going to Los Angeles to make a music video, the agents asked for permission to search his luggage, which was granted. The DEA found the cash and seized it.
The money still was in the bank envelopes that were used when he made the withdrawal.
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“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 Albuquerque Journal writer Joline Gutierrez Krueger. “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 was only able to get home because another traveler who had witnessed the incident helped him. If the Good Samaritan had not come forward, Rivers would have been left stranded, homeless and broken in a strange city – all because the government stole his cash.
“We don’t have to prove that the person is guilty,” Sean Waite, the head DEA agent in Albuquerque, admitted to Krueger. “It’s that the money is presumed to be guilty.”
Even if a state has laws restricting civil forfeiture, federal agents have free reign.
All agents need to do to seize money under forfeiture is to claim they think it is related to a crime. Nor are they obligated to listen to the travelers or verify their suspicions, as Rivers discovered.
“I even allowed him to call my mother, a military veteran and (hospital) coordinator, to corroborate my story,” Rivers said of the DEA agent. “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.”
The agents may have targeted Rivers because he was the only black passenger on a portion of an Amtrak train, attorney Michael Pancer charged. Pancer is representing Rivers in an effort to get back the cash.
Seizure Corridor on the Rail
Waite admitted that the DEA has a regular practice of stopping travelers and seizing cash in Albuquerque. He told Krueger that his agents had conducted at least five such seizures in the previous week.
Last year a Washington Post investigation found that local, state and federal agents have seized $2.5 billion in cash from 62,000 people since 2001 – all without warrants or indictments.
Waite denied Pancer’s allegations of racial profiling. Instead, he said agents look for indicators of drug activity, 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,” the newspaper reported.
If they suspect a traveler is guilty of being tied to criminal activity, the agents can ask for a consensual search, Waite said. If the person refuses, the agents can seize his or her luggage – but not the person — and hold it until they get a search warrant.
The seizures are necessary because Albuquerque is a major corridor for the shipment of illegal drugs and cash, Waite said. Pancer saw the seizures in a very different light.
“What this is, is having your money stolen by a federal agent acting under the color of law,” the attorney said. “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.”
If you want to help Joseph Rivers you can donate at his Go Fund me page.
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