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Man Held in Jail for 5 Days Without Food or Water Sues Feds

Well, this is embarrassing. A few weeks ago, a young man was arrested by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and held in a jail cell for five days, with no human contact, food, water, or even a toilet. And this was after he was told that he would be released without being charged, just as soon as the authorities finished up some paperwork on his case.

But when 23-year-old UC San Diego engineering student Daniel Chong sat alone for several hours, he started to get annoyed. As the hours turned into days, he began to fear for his life. After all, going just a few days without water can cause severe health problems, which could quickly become life-threatening.

When he was finally found in his cell, Chong was delirious and weak. He was taken to the hospital, where doctors said he was close to suffering kidney failure, and was so dehydrated that he was having trouble breathing. He had to spend 3 days in intensive care, and was hospitalized for a total of 5 days. I’m no doctor (obviously), but it sounds like he wouldn’t have survived another day or two in that cell.

Indeed, the article linked above indicates that, after a few days, the solitude, hunger, thirst, and fear truly got to him, and he began to lose his mind. He even tried to take his own life by breaking his glasses and cutting his wrist with the broken glass. Thankfully, he did not succeed in this attempt.

Well, he is now suing the federal government for $20 million, to compensate him for this ordeal.

While some people may argue that this is excessive (and if the federal government is smart, it will end up settling with him), and goes well beyond simply compensating the victim for his injuries. However, it’s impossible to put an exact dollar amount on the amount of mental and physical anguish that Mr. Chong must have suffered in his ordeal. What he went through is something I would never wish on my worst enemy.

And if this lawsuit ensures that such blunders never happen again, I’d say it would be worth every penny that the government has to pay out. Because, frankly, the fact that this happened is an absolute disgrace to the federal government, and an embarrassment to all of us.

Think about it: a person (who was ultimately never charged with a crime) almost died of thirst in federal custody, because everyone involved in his arrest and detention apparently just forgot about his existence. Some might say that he was a criminal, and we shouldn’t be shedding any tears for him.

To that I have two responses: first, he was never actually charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one. Second, even if he had been convicted of a major drug-related crime, it would in no way excuse what was done to this man. After all, in this country we generally pride ourselves on the fact that we don’t engage in cruel and unusual punishment. And if starving/dehydrating somebody half to death doesn’t constitute “cruel and unusual” punishment, I’d love to know what does.

Incidents like this harm the legitimacy of law enforcement in the public’s eyes, as well as the legitimacy of government in general. And we seem to be going through a phase where the public’s faith in the government’s ability to (or interest in) doing its job is at a historic low. And these types of incidents certainly don’t help matters.

Now, I don’t think the individual DEA agents involved in this incident left the victim in the jail cell on purpose. It probably was an honest (albeit very serious) mistake. Chances are, they were overworked, and lacked some of the administrative and logistical support they needed in order to keep track of the people in their custody. Such a scenario, in this era of government austerity and across-the-board budget cuts, is easy to imagine.

I think this incident, and similar ones, are partially a symptom of our broken drug laws. The United States imprisons more people than any other country on Earth. A large plurality of the people in federal and state custody in the U.S. were convicted of drug charges – casualties of the “war on drugs” that the government initiated in the 1980s. The fact is, American drug policy has resulted in the incarceration of more people than the system was designed to handle, leading to overcrowding of prisons, skyrocketing costs, and, occasionally, tragic incidents like the one discussed in this article.

While I don’t pretend to have a perfect solution to the overlapping problems of drug abuse and over-incarceration, I think a few simple reforms could reduce these problems significantly. For example, it’s glaringly obvious that our mass-incarceration approach to the drug problem has failed. It has overcrowded the prisons, led to skyrocketing law enforcement costs, and it does not appear to have done much to curb illegal drug use.

A good first step would be to stop relying on prisons as the primary method for dealing with the illegal drug problem, and focusing instead on treatment and rehabilitation programs, which can cost far less than prison, and be far more effective in reducing drug use. Furthermore, I’d like to see possession of small amounts of recreational drugs such as marijuana decriminalized.

Of course, I’m not saying that reforming our drug laws would solve the very separate problem of government incompetence, but by arresting fewer people, the burden on a large number of government employees (such as DEA agents, for example) would be reduced, which would almost certainly reduce the occurrence of incidents like this one.

Ken LaMance

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