Congress questions ‘cold’ searches, seizures by DEA

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Members of Congress are questioning the practice of “cold” stopping and searching of travelers by federal drug agents, saying it raises civil rights concerns about racial profiling and unjustified seizures of cash.

U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, sent a letter Tuesday to Chuck Rosenberg, acting administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, highlighting the story of Joseph Rivers of Romulus, a 22-year-old black man who was traveling by Amtrak to California in April. DEA agents boarded his train in Albuquerque and seized the $16,000 in cash he was carrying to make a music video in Los Angeles, according Michael Pancer, Rivers’ attorney.

Democratic Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico also signed the letter, which described the incident as “disturbing.”

The lawmakers noted a January audit by a Justice Department watchdog calling for improved training for agents and data collection to assess whether so-called “cold-consent” searches by DEA agents are conducted impartially.

“Cold-consent” encounters involve agents approaching someone they perceive as exhibiting characteristics indicative of a drug-trafficking profile or based on “no particular behavior,” according to the audit.

The DEA seized at least $163 million in 4,138 cash seizures between 2009-2013, according to the inspector general report. Twenty-one percent of those were contested, and the DEA ultimately returned the cash in at least 41 percent of those cases.

“Even after the Inspector General issued his report, we continue to learn of incidents that raise serious questions about the use of cold consent searches by the DEA,” the lawmakers wrote.

“We ask that you respond to this letter with details about the use of this technique, including criteria used for targeting individuals for such searches and the steps you are taking to ensure that your agents do not engage in racial profiling.”

In the DEA’s response to the inspector general’s report, officials said they would explore options to implement recommendations related to enhanced training, policy review and data collection.

Rivers, who wasn’t detained and has not been charged with a crime, is contesting the seizure of his cash by the DEA.

Pancer, the attorney, said Rivers’ mother lent him the bulk of the money, and Rivers told the DEA agent of his plans in L.A.

“He said, ‘Here, talk to my mom,’ and put her on the phone with them,” Pancer said. The DEA still seized the cash and left him with no money to get home to Michigan, Pancer said.

A DEA agent told the Albuquerque Journal in May that the agency could not comment because the case is ongoing, but in general, agents look for “indicators” such as whether travelers buy an expensive one-way ticket with cash, or if they are traveling from or to a city known as a hot spot for drug activity.

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