A Southern California congressman on Tuesday called on the U.S. Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation into the botched detention three years ago of a college student inadvertently left handcuffed in a Drug Enforcement Administration holding cell in Kearny Mesa without food or water for five days.
The federal personnel who “perpetrated this abuse” on then-UC San Diego engineering student Daniel Chong “must be held accountable, and a message must be sent that these kinds of actions cannot, must not happen again,” said Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance.
A representative of the DEA’s San Diego office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Chong, 23 at the time, suffered acute renal failure, muscle degeneration and dehydration during the illegitimate detention and was hospitalized for four days afterward. The following year, the government awarded him $4.1 million in an out-of-court settlement.
Following an internal investigation that ended last month, two involved DEA agents were suspended and four others received reprimands, according to Lieu, a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. That set of sanctions, however, “does not amount to justice for Mr. Chong and his family,” Lieu said.
“The current DOJ solution to this matter — a review of DEA internal disciplinary process — is simply not good enough,” the congressman said. “Mr. Chong almost died and had to undergo treatment for trauma caused by the abuse he suffered.”
Lieu said he would “be sending a letter shortly to formally request that the Department of Justice conduct a full civil rights investigation into the apparent denial of Mr. Chong’s civil and constitutional rights by the DEA.”
On April 21, 2012, Chong was arrested along with several other people during a drug raid on a University City home. Following an interview, DEA agents informed him that he would not be charged, then returned him to a 5- by 10-foot holding cell with his wrists cuffed behind his back, telling him they would be back momentarily.
He remained there until April 25, when federal officers uninvolved in his case happened to find him.
While languishing forgotten in the cell, Chong drank his own urine to slake his thirst, broke the lenses of his eyeglasses and cut himself with the shards, and ingested methamphetamine he came across in the cell.
Chong later told reporters he remembered screaming and hallucinating during the ordeal. Trying to get someone’s attention, he kicked the door and repeatedly tried to set off fire sprinklers. He later received treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
The DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General opened an investigation in the case in response to an anonymous tip it received two days after Chong’s detention ended. Last summer, the agency released a report identifying a number of shortcomings in procedures employed by the DEA’s San Diego office, including a lack of “any record-keeping methods to track detainee movements.”
Additionally, its holding cells contained no cameras, and it had no official policy or training “regarding the operation of the cell area, and no requirement that DEA personnel check the holding cells at the end of a day to ensure that all detainees had been properly processed, either for arrest or release,” according to the review.
Moreover, DEA personnel were not required to sign in and out of the detention area, and there were no reliable electronic entry records for the relevant period “because the door-locking mechanism at the entrance to the detention area was not functioning properly,” the report stated.
The drug agents’ “failure to ensure that Chong was released from custody after deciding that he would not be charged resulted in Chong’s unjustified incarceration and his need for significant medical treatment,” the oversight agency noted.
— City News Service
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