Joseph Rivers is a 22-year-old from Michigan who aspires to become a music producer. Looking to finally take action, he traveled to Los Angeles with $16,000 pooled from his family and personal savings to make a music video. He didn't expect what would be in store for him.
Rivers headed west via Amtrak train and switched trains in Albuquerque on April 15. He was carrying luggage and had the $16,000 cash in an envelope. Due to issues in the past withdrawing large sums of cash from out-of-state banks, he wanted to hold depositing the money until he arrived in Los Angeles.
Shortly after, however, DEA agents got on the train to look for drug traffickers. They were questioning passengers at random, according to Rivers. He also noted that he was the only black person in his train car.
According to witnesses, one agent saw Rivers and asked to search his bags. Rivers complied thinking nothing bad would happen. When the found the money, they seized it on the suspicion that it was tied to drugs.
Rivers tried to explain his situation to the agents and even got his mother on the phone to confirm the story but to no avail. He told The Journal:
"These officers took everything that I had worked so hard to save and even money that was given to me by family that believed in me. I told (the DEA 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."
Such a case is known as civil asset forfeiture where it allows police to legally seize property they think its tied to criminal activity, without charging the owner of a crime. If you don't fight to get it back, the property can then be sold with a cut going to the department that initially took it. Sean Waite, the agent in charge for the DEA in Albuquerque told The Journal:
"We don't have to prove that the person is guilty. It's that the money is presumed to be guilty."
While you can refuse a search request from an DEA agent, they have the right to hold your property until a search warrant is obtained, according to Waite.
San Diego Arttorney Michael Paner, who is currently representing Rivers, wrote in a letter to Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) that "race played a huge role in the incident."
The LAist points out that, since 9/11, 61,998 seizures of cash have been made totally over $2.5 billion. Most of the people who had money taken away from them were minorities.
Getting seized property back is not an easy feat and can require a lot of legal fees. In a 2014 report from The Washington Post, 35-year-old Mandrel Stuart, an African-American owner of a small barbecue restaurant, had $17,550 taken away from him by police during a minor traffic stop. While he eventually got his money back, he lost his business in the process because he had no money to pay his overhead.