Last month, Joseph Rivers boarded a Michigan train bound for Los Angeles with $16,000 in cash and a dream of making a music video. Instead, DEA agents, who asked to search Rivers' bags during a stop in New Mexico, seized his life savings still in a bank envelope, suspecting a link to drugs. The 22-year-old, who agreed to the search, told agents he was an aspiring producer and hoped to avoid difficulties withdrawing funds from an out-of-state bank, which his mom confirmed "nearly word for word" over the phone, Rivers writes on a GoFundMe page. But he never saw the money again. He's now fighting the seizure agents justified under civil forfeiture laws, which require only a sliver of suspicion that a person is linked to a crime—rather than an arrest or charge. "We don’t have to prove that the person is guilty," a DEA agent puts it to the Albuquerque Journal. "It's that the money is presumed to be guilty."
In other words, civil forfeiture is legalized theft, argues Rivers' lawyer. Rivers, who is back in Michigan thanks to a generous passenger, says he told 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." Though agents questioned other train passengers, Rivers was the only person searched, which he suspects was because he's black. The DEA denies that claim, noting agents look for "indicators," like a pricey one-way ticket paid for in cash or a destination that's considered a hub for drug activity. Had Rivers refused the search, agents could have held his bags until they procured a warrant. Still, "The takeaway from this story: never consent to a warrantless search," notes Boing Boing. The Washington Post reports the DEA has nabbed more than $38 million under civil forfeiture so far this year. (Also seized: entire bank accounts.)