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Cash seizure case: United States vs. $16k

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — So many good things have happened to Joseph Rivers lately that it’s easy to forget that the good came from a bad experience in Albuquerque four months ago when Drug Enforcement Administration agents took his $16,000 and thus his dream without benefit of arrest or criminal charge.

Which is not to say that the bad is completely over – because it isn’t.

Rivers, you may recall, is the young man from the Detroit suburbs who was headed west to Los Angeles to seek his fortune as a rapper and music video producer when the Amtrak train he was traveling in made a stop April 15 in Albuquerque and his $16,000 in cash, stored in an envelope in a blue suitcase, was seized by DEA agents who had a hunch – but no search warrant, charging document or probable cause – that the cash was connected with criminal activity.

Rivers was also the only black person in his section of the train.

His story, first told in this column May 6, went viral, retold again and again by both social and national media, including the Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, The Atlantic, the Washington Post and the Daily Mail in London.

He was invited to make appearances on TV shows like “The Security Brief,” filmed in New York City, and to testify before a briefing held by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Drug Policy Alliance in Washington. D.C.

Several members of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, including Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, asked for an explanation from the DEA on Rivers’ case and contemplated whether it was time to change the law that allowed such a thing to happen.

Joseph Rivers with his mother, Mary Jackson. Both testified at a briefing on civil asset forfeiture this summer in Washington, D.C. Since having his money seized by federal drug agents in Albuquerque in April, his story has gone viral. (Courtesy of Joseph Rivers)

Joseph Rivers with his mother, Mary Jackson. Both testified at a briefing on civil asset forfeiture this summer in Washington, D.C. Since having his money seized by federal drug agents in Albuquerque in April, his story has gone viral. (Courtesy of Joseph Rivers)

Almost overnight, Rivers, 22, became the poster boy of what is wrong about civil asset forfeiture, a troubling tool used more than you might realize by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to confiscate money and property from citizens based on a feeling, an inkling that the items are connected to illegal activity such as narcotics trafficking.

The citizen need never be arrested or charged in connection with the forfeiture – and, indeed, Rivers hasn’t been.

As Albuquerque DEA head agent Sean Waite so curiously put it in my previous column: “We don’t have to prove that the person is guilty. It’s that the money is presumed to be guilty.”

Rivers, too, has benefited personally. Donors chipped in more than $7,000 to a GoFundMe account. With about $3,000 of those funds, he finally made it to Los Angeles in June – this time with no DEA interference – and made that music video of his song “Do They Know” under his rap name, Joe Kush.

His plight also caught the attention of executives with Atlantic Records, a major music label, who offered him a chance to cut a demo of his music at its New York studios.

“My dreams are coming to reality faster than I ever could have imagined,” Rivers gushed.

And now for the bad.

At the time, DEA officials would not explain why they had taken the cash but said that generally they look for “indicators” such as whether the person bought a one-way ticket with cash, is traveling from or to a city known as a hot spot for drug activity, if the person’s story has inconsistencies or if the large sums of money found could have been transported by more conventional means.

Now, federal officials say most of those indicators pertain to Rivers. In a federal complaint for forfeiture filed July 29, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Mexico paints a troubling picture of a young man convicted in 2010 (as a juvenile), 2011 and 2014 of marijuana and weapons possession.

The complaint also says that DEA agents in Albuquerque that day had noted a smell of marijuana from Rivers’ suitcase and that a drug-sniffing dog later “alerted” positively for the odor of an illegal controlled substance on Rivers’ money – this, though no illicit substance was ever found on Rivers or in the suitcase.

Agents also later said they found numerous text messages on Rivers’ cellphone referring to “kush,” which they say is slang for high-grade marijuana. But remember: Joe Kush is Rivers’ rap name.

Michael Pancer, a San Diego attorney representing Rivers, blamed the previous charges on youthful indiscretion and claimed it has no bearing on who Rivers is now or what he was doing on that ill-fated April trip.

“He did have problems in the past, but none of those relate to the funds he had with him,” Pancer said. “We are going to be able to account for all those funds from legitimate sources.”

Rivers adds: “I served my time and got my life back together. These charges exist, but there is an entire story behind them as well. Why does my past matter anyway?”

What is important to remember is that the feds have not accused Rivers of wrongdoing but contend his money is guilty of wrongdoing because of Rivers’ past.

And so the case goes to court.

The name of the case, incidentally, is the United States of America v. $16,000 in United States Currency.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to to submit a letter to the editor.