After scraping together enough money to produce a music video in Hollywood, 22-year-old Joseph Rivers set out last month on a train trip from Michigan to Los Angeles, hoping it was the start of something big. Before he made it to California, however, Rivers fell victim to a legal form of government highway robbery.
The Albuquerque Journal reported that 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 $16,000 in cash he had raised with the help of his family. Agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration got on after him and began looking for people who might be trafficking drugs.
Rivers said the agents questioned passengers at random, asking for their destination and reason for travel. 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. The agent found the cash – still in a bank envelope – and decided to seize it on suspicion that it may be tied to narcotics. River pleaded with the agents, explaining his situation and even putting his mother on the phone to verify.
No luck. “These officers took everything that I had worked so hard to save and even money that was given to me by my family that believed in me,” Rivers told the Journal. “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.”
Michael Pancer, a San Diego attorney who now represents Rivers, told the Journal: “What this is, is having your money stolen by a federal agent acting under the color of law. It’s a national epidemic. If my office got four to five cases just recently, and I’m just one attorney, you know this is happening thousands of times.”
Pancer is challenging the DEA asset forfeiture on Rivers’ behalf, and wrote in a letter to Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), obtained by the Huffington Post, that Rivers’ race “played a role in the incident.” Conyers’ office wouldn’t comment on active litigation.