Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham and two other members of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee want to know more about why federal narcotics agents seized $16,000 from a 22-year-old African-American man in April when the Amtrak train he was taking to Los Angeles stopped in Albuquerque.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents made the seizure after they had talked to Joseph Rivers about where he was going. He was not charged with a crime, but the money was seized because agents said they believed, based on their conversation with Rivers, that it was somehow linked to narcotics trafficking.
Rivers’ plight – he said he was going to use the money to make a music video in California – was first reported in a Journal UpFront column by Joline Gutierrez Krueger on May 6. Headlined “DEA to traveler: Thanks, I’ll take that cash,” it went viral and resulted in thousands of visits to the Journal‘s website, ABQjournal.com.
Lujan Grisham and fellow Democrats Sheila Jackson Lee and John Conyers Jr., the ranking minority member, asked the DEA in a letter this week for more information about the stop and to answer their concerns that it might have involved racial profiling.
“These stops appear to involve individuals who have not committed any crime,” Lujan Grisham said in a telephone interview. “Many of these people don’t have the resources to fight a forfeiture action.”
The letter cited the Journal‘s story on the so-called “cold consent” search of Rivers, who was still on the train after it stopped at the station in Downtown Albuquerque.
Rivers told the Journal he was on his way from Dearborn, Mich., to Los Angeles to make a music video when the train stopped in Albuquerque on April 15.
Rivers said he was carrying $16,000 in cash he saved and relatives gave him to fulfill his lifelong dream of making a music video when he was approached by a DEA agent who was asking passengers where they were going and why.
The agent asked to search Rivers’ bags, he complied and the agent found the cash in a bank envelope.
“I even allowed him to call my mother, a military veteran and (hospital) coordinator) to corroborate my story,” Rivers told Gutierrez Krueger. “Even with all 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.”
Rivers was not arrested or charged with any crime. But his money was seized under civil forfeiture laws in an administrative process that can last years.
Rivers said he was the only passenger singled out for a search by DEA agents and the only African-American on his portion of the train.
The Judiciary Committee members said there are “disturbing issues” related to the use of the technique of cold consent searches.
Of the $163 million seized by DEA Interdiction Task Forces around the country from 2009 to 2014, about $8.3 million was eventually returned, the committee members noted.
The money that is retained is used to pay for various Department Justice programs, and some of it is shared with local law enforcement agencies that participate in the task forces.
“This financial dimension, when paired with searches sometimes based on dubious criteria and possibly involving racial profiling, adds to the potential for government abuse,” the letter says.
“I expect some answers from DEA,” said Lujan Grisham. “It might well be that we have to change the law.”
Cold consent searches like the one Rivers underwent are also called “meet-and-greets” or “consensual encounters.” They have been part of the DEA closet of techniques for years, employed at airports, train depots and bus stations.
DEA agents have denied they racially profile people, arguing that they use other indicators such as people buying expensive one-way tickets in cash at the last minute.
The seizures, even those involving drugs, have been challenged in federal court over the past several decades, but the government usually wins unless the agents’ behavior was considered threatening or coercive.
If a person refuses to allow an agent to search his or her luggage in a “meet and greet,” the agents can take the luggage and seek a search warrant that is subject to approval from a judge.
Under civil asset forfeiture laws, it is the money or property that is considered the guilty party. The person carrying the money doesn’t have to be charged with a crime.
The Justice Department’s Inspector General issued a report in January that found such stops and seizures raise civil rights concerns and the possibility of racial profiling.
This year, Gov. Susana Martinez signed a bill that prohibits state and local law enforcement from using civil asset forfeiture for seizing money and property.