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DEA Seizes $16K From Midwesterner Coming To L.A. To Make A Music Video

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The DEA can just take your cash without actually proving you were doing anything wrong (Photo by Rrraum via Shutterstock)
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A young man hopped on a train from Michigan to Los Angeles carrying $16,000 in cash and a dream of becoming a music video producer. Then the DEA decided he must be a drug dealer and took it all. Joseph Rivers, 22, left his home in Romulus, Mich. and boarded an Amtrak train headed west. On April 15, he switched trains in Albuquerque, the Albuquerque Journal reports. He was carrying luggage that contained, among other essentials, $16,000 in an envelope. He had raised this money with the help of his family in order to follow his dream of becoming a music video producer. He decided not to deposit it until he got to L.A. because he had experienced issues in the past trying to withdraw large sums of cash from out-of-state banks.

Soon after, DEA agents also got on the train and began looking for train-riding drug traffickers. Rivers said that the agents questioned passengers seemingly at random, but that he was the only passenger they decided to search. He said he was also the only black passenger in his train car. Rivers agreed to the search, not thinking anything bad would happen. When the officers found the cash, however, they took it on suspicion that it could possibly be tied in some way to drugs. Rivers told the agents what he was really up to, even calling his mother to speak with the agents and confirm.

It didn't make a difference to the DEA. "I told [the 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," he told the Journal.

They left Rivers broke in New Mexico, his dream stalled. A passenger on the train who requested to remain anonymous witnessed the incident. He helped Rivers return to Michigan and contacted reporter Joline Gutierrez Krueger at the Albuquerque Journal to tell Rivers' story.

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This happens more than you might think. It's called civil asset forfeiture, and it's a perfectly legal way that law enforcement can just take your money if they suspect it may be related to a crime. They don't have to prove that you're running a drug trafficking ring, and they likely won't even detain or charge you. If you want your stuff back, you have to prove that you're innocent, and going through that process often involves racking up legal fees—and it can take a long time. And it isn't just cash: they can take your car, your house or anything they think you may have purchased with dirty money or used while committing crimes. If you're wondering what would have happened if Rivers had refused to let officers search his bag, it's equally negative: the officers would have been able to hold the bags until they could get a search warrant. Once the agents got that warrant, they still likely would have found and seized Rivers' funds.

Since 9/11, there have been 61,998 seizures of cash amounting to over $2.5. billion, according to the Washington Post. Many of the people who have had money taken from them are, like Rivers, minorities. Many of them were on their way to buy a new car, business or other major purchase when they were pulled over, searched and had an officer whisk away their money.

Gothamist reported on a New York man who had $4,800 that he was planning to use to take his girlfriend on a cruise seized during a raid of his Bronx home. By the time his case was dropped (without charges, of course), he was told his money had been put into the NYPD's pension fund so it was too late. When he eventually got that money back, it came from the City's general fund, meaning people's tax money went to pay back the money that the police effectively stole from a bartender who was saving up to do a nice thing for his girlfriend.

Civil asset forfeiture has been lambasted against numerous times. It's even been expertly criticized by John Oliver on HBO's Last Week Tonight. While Oliver acknowledges some cases where asset forfeiture has actually affected trafficking rings, law enforcement's ability to keep the money has led to a lot of questions as to the motivation behind it. There has also been some controversy over how various departments have spent that money. In Texas, Oliver said a department bought a margarita machine. "They were literally using this money as their own personal slush fund," Oliver joked.

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San Diego attorney Michael Pancer is now representing Rivers. He wrote a letter to Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) that alleges that Rivers was targeted by officers because he is black. Sean Waite, an Albuquerque DEA agent, told the Journal that it wasn't true that Rivers was profiled, but declined to comment on the seizure because he said the investigation is ongoing. So far, however, Rivers has not been charged with any crimes.

Waite also explained a few reasons why they might suspect someone is doing something illegal with a lot of money, including traveling to or from areas with known drug trafficking issues or just the simple act of having a bunch of cash on hand instead of in a bank. "We don't have to prove that the person is guilty. It's that the money is presumed to be guilty," he said.

While some local and state governments have attempted to minimize civil asset forfeiture, the federal government has done no such thing. This means that federal agents—like the DEA—are still free to seize citizen's money on a suspicion.