The $4.1M Accident That Can Never Happen

That 25-year-old San Diego student Daniel Chong will be scarred for life by the experience really can’t be questioned. After all, being left for 5 days in a holding cell will do that to a person. From the LA Times:

After being questioned briefly at the DEA facility in San Diego, he was told he would be released. But, for reasons that remain unclear, he was left for five days in a 5-by-10-foot windowless room without food, water or toilet facilities.

He suffered hallucinations and was forced to drink his urine to survive. He screamed for help.

Fearing he would die, he broke his glasses and scrawled the message, “Sorry, mom” on his arm.

When he was discovered by DEA employees, he was covered in his own feces and severely dehydrated. He was rushed to a hospital, close to kidney failure and breathing with difficulty. He spent five days in the hospital.

And the DEA settled Chong’s claim for $4.1 million, which is no small sum, though it’s hard to say whether it’s enough to compensate for what happened here. But others can debate the settlement value, as that’s really not my concern.

Rather, the question is how it’s conceivably possible that Chong was forgotten. There is no claim, nor basis for a claim, that somebody at the DEA decided to teach this kid a lesson by leaving him in a windowless, toiletless room. The allegation was that somebody put him in there and, poof, out of sight, out of mind.

But that simply cannot be. The exercise of authority to detain, to hold someone, cannot be dependent on whether some guy at DEA headquarters remembers that he put some kid in a room. It cannot be dependent on someone else checking rooms, just in case some kid is left in a room for four or five days (the length of time varies from report to report, but is immaterial). This is not an occasion where human frailty, memory, provides a comprehensible if bad excuse.

Had Chong remained in the room a little longer, he may well have died. Murder? Maybe, under a depraved indifference theory, but more likely chalked up to a tragic accident. We know this because no one was prosecuted for his being left there and subsequently found alive. While the outcome, life or death, is an aggravating factor, it’s not the gravamen of a crime. The crime was in leaving him in the room in the first place and forgetting him. That he came out alive is pure kismet.

The counter argument is no one meant Chong any harm.  No one wanted him dead or suffering. And as is so often the case, a confluence of mishaps resulted in a terrible thing happening. While that explanation rarely saves a guy from prosecution when he doesn’t carry a shield, it fleshed out differently when the terrible thing happened as a result of an exercise of police powers.

Unlike so many controversial (meant in the sense of questionable) situations where a law enforcement officer causes harm to a person, there is no controversy surrounding Chong’s imprisonment. There is no backstory to explain why it happened, why a DEA agent thought it necessary and then, well, things went awry. It was just a complete, total, screw-up. Nothing more, and no one contends otherwise.

While discretion plays a role in most police-public encounters that end up going poorly, there was no discretion involved here. No one had to think too hard or make snap decisions. There is no comfort to be taken by raising the usual excuses for agents gone wrong.

Strikingly, Chong was held in a room in the San Diego DEA office, which apparently lacked any means of ascertaining what was going on inside or alerting anyone outside. We live in a world where our every burp is recorded by the NSA, and yet there remains a hole in the San Diego office where privacy reigns supreme.

Presumably, Chong banged on the door to his room to alert someone to his presence, but no one heard. Apparently, there was no button on the wall that buzzed at a central desk.  This was the hole, but without the ordinary accoutrements that make even the hole quasi-livable.

This can’t exist. This can’t happen. This cannot be possible. A governmental agency with the power to seize and detain human beings cannot have an accident like this under any circumstances. Despite the thousand ways in which a tiny shift in conduct would have prevented Chong’s ordeal from happening, there was at least one way in which it could happen. That cannot be.

Some readers will think, “but he got $4.1 million in settlement for what they did to him. Not too shabby.” Perhaps, though it’s always best to think about financial compensation in the reserves: if someone offered you $4.1 million (less attorney fees) to go through what Chong went through, not knowing whether you would come out alive on the other side, would you take them up on it?

But then, it’s not about money, nor whether the next guy gets $5.1 or $1.1 million. It’s about a system that confers the authority to do this to a person such that a death might result because somebody simply forgot. The authority to do this to a person cannot, ever, be contingent on the weakest of human frailties, and that something happened that can never happen makes clear that they are unworthy of the power they have been given.

15 comments on “The $4.1M Accident That Can Never Happen

  1. C. N. Nevets

    I can hardly even stomach this story.

    Who would have criminal jurisdiction over this? The FBI? Anyone? I realize no one has (or likely will) pursue any criminal case in this matter — but who even could?

    1. SHG Post author

      Everybody and nobody. The DEA has an Inspector General. The FBI has general jurisdiction. If they were so inclined, there would be someone. But the time has come and gone.

      1. C. N. Nevets

        I keep imagining the conversation that went like this:

        FBI 1: “We’re going to have to go after the DEA on this. Can you believe it? Totally forgetting a guy for five days?”

        FBI 2: “Oh crap, that reminds of someone. I mean something.”

  2. Bruce Coulson

    I’m sure some strongly-worded memos have now been circulated in the TSA concerning the liability just incurred by this case.

    Probably internal discipline of the agent(s) who were responsible for the government shelling out 4.1 million to an individual perp.

    Actual changes in procedures to avert such incidents in the future? Possibly.

    Those in charge of the TSA acknowledging their responsibility and mis-conduct beyond the settlement? Priceless…and therefore beyond their ability to pay.

    1. SHG Post author

      I strongly doubt anything will happen at the TSA. The DEA, maybe, but not the TSA. But I would go so far as to say “I’m sure.” Maybe “I hope” would be more appropriate.

      1. Bruce Coulson

        Whoops, my error; wrong oppressive government agency providing enforcement without safety.

      1. Required Name

        We is anybody. If I were bent toward the melodramatic, then I would say “The People.” If this “cannot” happen, and it does, then that goes from being impossible to precedent. If it happens again, then it has gone from impossible to policy. If there is nothing to do about it, then… Well, that sucks.

        1. SHG Post author

          The fix here has nothing to do with “we.” Not everything that goes wrong is a “we” issue. Not every problem has a “we” solution.

  3. A Random Defender

    I remember reading this and thinking how in the world this could happen in America.

    I wish I knew the backstory on how this happened, but it’s probably something completely mundane (ie. the agent just forgot he had him in there). In a way, that’s even more horrifying.

    1. SHG Post author

      For me, that’s the point. It’s my understanding that it was nothing more than someone forgot to let him out. It’s more than inexcusable. It just can’t happen.

Comments are closed.