Somebody in the DEA Should Get Jail Time in Case of Student Forgotten in Holding Cell

Posted on May 3, 2012

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UCSD student Daniel Chong figured he’d spend a little time getting high at a friend’s house to celebrate 4/20, a date which has become associated with the open use of marijuana.  Bad luck for him: the DEA chose that moment to raid the house.  He was questioned, admitted using ecstasy and was told he was not under arrest and could leave.  He was never charged.  But then somehow, he ended up in custody, handcuffed,  in a five-by-ten foot holding cell with no food, water, or toilet.  Chong could hear other detainees and DEA employees around him, and screamed and pounded, but no one came until five days later, when he was near death.

The DEA paid for his intensive care at the hospital, and issued an apology.  They are investigating how this could have happened.  And Chong, for his part, plans to sue.  Oh, now here we go.  NBC reports:

San Diego defense attorney Gretchen Von Helms said the victim could get millions if he files a lawsuit.  “In all my years of practice I’ve never heard of the DEA or any Federal government employee simply forgetting about someone that they have in their care,” she said.  “There has to be repercussions if people do not follow the safety and the care when they have a human being in their custody.”

I agree that there should be repercussions, and perhaps a lawsuit is the way to ensure that.  But why is it, in this country, that the pattern seems to be:  government or business does something bad.  Victim sues.  Victim gets rich.  Somebody might get fired.  Really, is this the desired outcome?

I have something better in mind.  How about this:  somebody, or several somebodies, go to jail for reckless endangerment, or criminal negligence.  This would probably be the agent in charge of the raid, and/or whatever detention-facility employee omitted to record the fact that a man who should have been released was in fact in a cell, and never checked on him for five days while he screamed and pounded.  They should count themselves lucky not to be charged with negligent homicide, since their victim survived.

As for Chong, I absolutely agree that DEA should have paid his hospital bill.  That was a good start.  If he needs anything related to this episode in the future – therapy, kidney transplant, PTSD treatment – the DEA should pony up.  I am all for compensation.  I am not for enrichment.

Monetary judgments are generally awarded for two reasons:  to compensate the victim, and to punish the perpetrator.  Sometimes extremely large awards are directed as a way to punish a large corporation; they wouldn’t feel any pain otherwise.  But two points on that:  first, the defendant here is the federal government, so taxpayers would be funding the award, and the DEA would not feel a whole lot of monetary pain.  Second, why should all of the money from any huge award go to the victim?  Why not compensate the victim for his financial losses related to the case, and then hand over the remainder to some kind of fund?  Maybe into Social Security or Medicare.  And for those who ask:  well, how do you set a price on pain and suffering, I respond: yes, how do you set a price?  Will millions buy back a dead loved one, restore eyesight, make you walk again, or make you forget what you endured?  No.  And that’s why we should send the accountable folks to jail in a case like this.  What they did amounts to kidnapping (locking Chong up once the decision was made not to charge him) and torture, and they very nearly killed a man by denying him water.  That’s not something to respond to with mere firings and cash.

Originally published at The Color of Lila.

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