K.C. Alfred / Zuma Press
Daniel Chong appears at a news conference Tuesday in San Diego where he discussed his detention by the DEA.
So far, the facts of the case are not in dispute: College student Daniel Chong was picked up by federal agents during a raid on a party in the San Diego area where there were illegal drugs, and after questioning he was left locked up in a holding cell with no water, food or access to a toilet for nearly five days.
The mystery is the reason for the nearly fatal treatment. How could the federal Drug Enforcement Administration misplace a person in custody? Does it represent one serious mistake or a systems failure?
"It’s just incredible," said George Kirkham, professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida State University. "It’s in the genre of a parent locking a child in a car in 100-degree heat … And this is a major federal agency, not a Podunk sheriff’s operation out beyond Yuma."
Chong, a 23-year-old student at the University of California-San Diego, was taken into custody with eight others during a DEA raid on April 21 of a "suspected MDMA distribution operation." Chong said he had gone to the house to get high with his friends.
After processing and questioning the nine young men, "seven suspects were brought to county detention … one was released and the individual in question (Chong) was accidentally left in one of the cells," according to a statement from the DEA.
Chong said he could hear agents outside his cell, but no one could hear his cries, according to an NBCSanDiego.com/Associated Press report. He said that after 48 hours, he started hallucinating, and that to survive, he drank his own urine. After he was "found" in the cell, Chong spent three days in intensive care at a hospital, according to the report.
Chong’s case is extreme, and the DEA issued an apology Wednesday.
"I am deeply troubled by the incident that occurred here last week," said DEA San Diego acting special agent-in-charge William R. Sherman. "I extend my deepest apologies to the young man and want to express that this event is not indicative of the high standards that I hold my employees to. I have personally ordered an extensive review of our policies and procedures."
DEA would not discuss the case beyond what was said in the statement.
"The DEA rightfully put out a pretty forceful apology and said they will review procedures … and that is appropriate," said Kevin Sabet, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida and a former senior policy adviser to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. "This was an extraordinary situation and, as far as we know, an isolated incident."
College student Daniel Chong has filed charges against the DEA for $20 million after agents forgot him for almost five days while he sat in a cell so small, he couldn't even spread his arms out wide. KNSD's Tony Shin reports.
Symptom of systemic problem?
But organizations advocating the reform of drug laws say that the problem is a symptom of the system of the war on drugs.
"Not that (Chong’s case) is typical, but that it is an example of what happens when you are arresting millions of people a year and putting them behind bars where all sorts of terrible things happen," said Ethan Nadelman, executive director and founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates alternatives to the criminalization of drugs.
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the number of people behind bars for drug law violations rose from 50,000 in 1980 to more than a half of a million today — a 1,100-percent increase. The group said that in 2008, more than 800,000 people were arrested for marijuana alone — nearly 90 percent for simple possession.
"The system is unable to meet its basic responsibilities with respect to the people we arrest and incarcerate because there are just too many of them," said David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org, which advocates for regulation of drugs instead of prohibition. "There’s a general devolution of standards from the sheer volume."
Arrest for marijuana possession in April 2003 had fatal consequences for Jonathan Magbie, 27, a first-time offender in Washington, D.C. Magbie, who was quadriplegic, was riding with his cousin when they were pulled over by police, who found some marijuana and a gun in his pockets. In September 2004, a judge sentenced Magbie to 10 days in jail for the pot, according to a Washington Post report. Magbie needed a respirator at night, but the jail infirmary didn't have one. He died four days into his 10-day sentence.
The death led to a substantial settlement for Magbie’s mother and changes in the way that the District of Columbia screened inmates with medical problems and disabilities, the report said.
"A typical characterization from authorities when things go wrong is that it was unacceptable what happened, but the rare exception," said Borden. "In my opinion this misses the central point. In the past few decades we have escalated the drug war and the criminal justice system generally, to the point where we are running huge numbers of people through it, the system becoming incapable of reliably carrying out its basic responsibilities as a result."
The DEA said that in the April 21 raid that led to Chong’s arrest, it had seized 18,000 MDMA, or ecstasy, pills as well as marijuana, prescription medications and hallucinogenic mushrooms, according to a statement. Agents also reported seizing a Russian M91/30 rifle, a Glock 17 handgun, and a Beretta 92fs handgun, along with thousands of rounds of ammunition.
"The individual in question was at the house, by his own admission, to get high with his friends," the statement said.
Chong was not charged with a crime. With his lawyer, Chong announced that he was filing a claim for $20 million against the federal government over the incident.
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