The travesty of civil asset forfeiture isn’t exactly a new issue, but when law enforcement’s objective is so flagrantly directed at seeking out random cash to seize that it appears to everyone, save anyone on the government nipple, to be cynical theft, it can’t be ignored. Joseph Rivers, a 22-year-old out to make a music video, found that out.
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.
Why they say that the DEA agents were looking for people “who might be trafficking drugs” isn’t clear, but it seems likely that this comes from the official police version of events because people find it palatable to have the DEA out there looking for drug traffickers.
Rivers said the agents questioned passengers at random, asking for their destination and reason for travel.
Yes, it sounds exactly like “papers, please,” from Casablanca. A Terry analysis could be inserted here, but what’s the point? They’re allowed to ask, as could any citizen, and random passengers are allowed to tell them to stick up their butts, which will never happen because most people justifiably fear what will come next. Not Supreme Court justices, but most people.
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.
Did the agents go further because Rivers was black? Young? Because they could? Rivers likely found the intrusion unpleasant and annoying, but not extraordinary, and assumed he had nothing to hide. After all, he had no drugs, and this is America.
The agent found the cash — still in a bank envelope — and decided to seize it on suspicion that it may be tied to narcotics.
What makes this detail fascinating is that the cash was “still in a bank envelope.” For those who may not be aware, there is a familiar method used by drug dealers to bundle cash, and that’s why criminal defense lawyers never ran out of rubber bands. But bank envelopes are the sign that the funds came from a bank account, not from a hand-to-hand on a street corner.
Rivers pleaded with the agents, explaining his situation and even putting his mother on the phone.
There was $16,000 in cash, and a young man who saw his world about to disappear for no better reason than some guys with government badges decided to take away his savings, and with it, his future. So he tried to reason with them. He tried to explain to them. What he likely didn’t realize was that America made the possession of cash itself proof of a crime. Not enough to be convicted, but enough to seize and forfeit the cash.
They have a great slogan to go with the theft, “take the profit out of crime,” which was more than sufficient during the formative years to sway the American public to accept it. After all, most people didn’t walk around with thousands in cash, and the streets were littered with drug dealers back in the 1980s, so why not?
“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 key word there is “presumed.” There is no need to offer any proof whatsoever to link the cash to an illegal source. Not even a little bit. It is presumed to be the proceeds of crime, the instrumentality of crime, because it’s cash. Cash is presumed to be guilty.
It’s not that Rivers can’t fight the forfeiture, even though the government need only show probable cause, which is satisfied by the presumption because tons of judges have already said so. The burden shifts to the claimant, Rivers, assuming the agents remembered to get his name and give him a receipt when they walked away with his money, to prove the innocence of his money.
But he won’t have that money to make his music video. And he will have to spend money to retain a lawyer to representing him in claiming the money, and fighting the civil forfeiture. And this happened in Albuquerque, where he happened to be for a moment in his life, rather than Hollywood, where he was heading, or Michigan, where he came from and has since returned to.
When the Supreme Court speaks to the authority for law enforcement to do its job, to ask questions when they have no reason to hassle someone, or to seek consent to search because the person happens to be a 22-year-old black kid with his life savings in a bank envelope, they think of bad dudes and not kids like Rivers.
But by now, civil forfeiture law is so firmly established due to years of decisions directed at seizure from drug dealers, or at least people the public and judges could hate enough as drug dealers, that this flagrant theft is perfectly lawful. That’s the law, and everyone yelled “hooray” because it took the profit out of drugs and was only being used against people who were smeared as drug kingpins.
So what if they couldn’t prove the defendant was dirty. The money was presumed guilty. And now it’s 22-year-old Joseph Rivers’ turn to have his money presumed guilty, because that’s how law happens. The DEA will continue to take the train, and whatever other conveyance they can find, because it allows them to search for money. Guilty, guilty money, until a claimant proves otherwise.