The Washington Post recently shared the story of Joseph Rivers, an aspiring businessman with dreams of hitting the big time. He set out for Hollywood with $16,000 in life savings, hoping to start his own music video company -- his shot at the American Dream. However, he never made it.
As Rivers was about to set out from the Albuquerque Amtrak station, a DEA agent boarded his train. The agent asked several of the passengers about their destination, including Rivers. Maybe Rivers was a little too honest with the agent because when he said he was headed to LA to make a music video, the agent asked to search his bags.
Rivers complied. Why wouldn't he? He had nothing to hide? Right?
From The Washington Post (reporting on a story that originally published in the Albuquerque Journal):
"The agent found Rivers's cash, still in a bank envelope. He explained why he had it: He was starting a business in California, and he'd had trouble in the past withdrawing large sums of money from out-of-state banks. The agents didn't believe him, according to the article. They said they thought the money was involved in some sort of drug activity. Rivers let them call his mother back home to corroborate the story. They didn't believe her, either. The agents found nothing in Rivers's belongings that indicated that he was involved with the drug trade: no drugs, no guns. They didn't arrest him or charge him with a crime. But they took his cash anyway, every last cent, under the authority of the Justice Department's civil asset forfeiture program."
Civil forfeiture has been an ongoing problem, but has only really entered the national spotlight recently despite efforts from media outlets like Al Jazeera America and The Washington Post to bring it to the public's attention.
It is a policy that allows local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to seize a person's assets without actually convicting them of a crime. All the law enforcement agent has to do is claim that he or she had reason to suspect that the assets being seized may have been used or will be used in criminal activity of some kind.
In 2014, Last Week Tonight host John Oliver devoted a 16-minute segment to the issue, which got people talking. In fact, Oliver featured stories similar to Rivers' encounter with the DEA agent -- people traveling hundreds of miles to start a new life with all the money they have just to have it all taken away.
Michigan resident Matt Lee had $2,400 seized after being pulled over in Nevada. The police officer asked how much money Lee was traveling with. He then conducted a K-9 search of the car, found the cash, and concluded that Lee was traveling from Michigan to California to purchase drugs. The K-9 search found nothing illegal in the car.
"There is no presumption of innocence under civil asset forfeiture laws. Rather, law enforcement officers only need to have a suspicion -- in practice, often a vague one -- that a person is involved with illegal activity in order to seize their property. On the highway, for instance, police may cite things like tinted windows, air fresheners or trash in the car, according to a Washington Post investigation last year. [...] Asset forfeiture is lucrative for the DEA. According to their latest notification of seized goods, updated Monday, agents have seized well over $38 million dollars' worth of cash and goods from people in the first few months of this year. Some of the goods may be directly related to ongoing criminal investigations, but most of them are not." - The Washington Post, May 11, 2015