May 05, 2015

DEA agents jail student 5 days with no food, water; get slap on wrist

Federal agents responsible for leaving a 23-year-old UC San Diego engineering student in a holding cell for five days without food or water received only reprimands or short suspensions from the Drug Enforcement Administration, according to the Justice Department.

Daniel Chong was swept up in a 2012 DEA raid on his friends' house, where he had gone to smoke marijuana. After an interrogation, he was told he would be released. 

But the agents responsible forgot about him, according to a Department of Justice Office of Inspector General report last summer, leaving him to drink his own urine to stave off dehydration.

The Justice Department, in a letter to members of Congress obtained by the Los Angeles Times, said that “what happened to Mr. Chong is unacceptable” and that “the DEA’s failure to impose significant discipline on these employees further demonstrates the need for a systemic review of DEA’s disciplinary process.” 

Chong, who was never charged with a crime, was kept in total isolation with his hands handcuffed behind his back in a windowless cell with no bathroom, calling out periodically for help. Midway through the ordeal someone turned off the light in his cell, leaving him in darkness.

When he was finally discovered he was delirious, with serious respiratory and breathing problems. He was hospitalized for four days, and he and his lawyers said at a news conference last summer that he underwent intensive therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. The department paid Chong a $4.1-million settlement.

The Inspector General Report said that three DEA agents and a supervisor bore primary responsibility for Chong’s mistreatment and that the DEA San Diego Field Division lacked procedures to keep track of detainees. They were not named in the report.

The Department of Justice letter said that DEA officials forwarded a report on the incident to a disciplinary board, the Board of Professional Conduct, without conducting its own investigation. The board issued four reprimands to DEA agents and a suspension without pay for five days to another. The supervisor in charge at the time was given a seven-day suspension.

This is not the first time that DEA disciplinary procedures have been called into question. Last month House Oversight Committee members expressed outrage that then-DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart had not seriously punished agents involved in sex parties with prostitutes in Colombia. They received suspensions of two to 10 days.

Leonhart, under pressure from the Obama administration, announced her retirement April 22. Former Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. ordered a review of DEA disciplinary procedures.


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