Incarceration of Daniel Chong
The incarceration of Daniel Chong was an incident in April 2012 in San Diego, California, when agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) accidentally left a detained student locked in a holding room and forgot he was there. The cell contained no food, water or bathroom facilities. Five days later when he was found, he had to be hospitalized for several days for a variety of medical problems. The incident touched off a national furor, resulting in several investigations and a $20 million claim filed against the DEA. The incident has been described as a "Kafkaesque nightmare," a "debacle," and "one of the worst cases of its kind."
At the time of the incident Daniel Chong was a 23-year-old student at the University of California, San Diego, a senior majoring in engineering, who is originally from Cerritos in Los Angeles County. On April 20, 2012, he was at a friend's apartment in the University City neighborhood of San Diego, where he and his friends were celebrating the 4/20 holiday, a day that refers to cannabis usage. The apartment was raided early on the morning of April 21 by the DEA, which seized marijuana, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and 18,000 ecstasy pills, along with guns and ammunition. Chong and eight other people were transported to the DEA field office in the Kearny Mesa neighborhood of San Diego, where they were interrogated.
Seven of the nine detainees were then taken to county jail, one was released, and Chong was accidentally left in a holding cell at the DEA office, according to the DEA. Chong says he was told that he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time and that he would be released and even given a ride home. He was placed in a 5 by 10 feet (1.5 m × 3.0 m) holding cell, his wrists bound in handcuffs. He was then left in the windowless cell for five days despite repeated cries for help. He could hear people walking around outside the room but could not get their attention. At one point the lights went off for several days. While locked up, he was starving and hallucinating. He claimed that, while incarcerated, he had to drink his own urine for hydration, and ingested some methamphetamine that he found under a blanket inside the cell in order to keep himself awake. He attempted suicide by breaking one of the lenses in his eyeglasses, slitting his wrists with the shards and swallowing them. By the time he was discovered on April 25, he was hallucinating and completely incoherent.
Upon his discovery on April 25, Chong was taken to Sharp Memorial Hospital in Serra Mesa where he remained for five days, including three in the intensive care unit. He was treated for various problems including dehydration, near-failure of his kidneys, and a perforated lung from eating broken glass. He was never charged with any crime.
On May 1 he came forward with his story, accompanied by his lawyer, who said he planned to file a claim against the federal government.
Chong has since returned to UC San Diego.
On May 2, DEA San Diego acting special agent-in-charge William R. Sherman issued a statement saying "I am deeply troubled by the incident that occurred here last week. 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."
Senator Barbara Boxer (Democrat of California) called for an "immediate and thorough" investigation of the matter by the Department of Justice. Representative Darrell Issa (Republican of California) demanded a congressional investigation. Representative Duncan D. Hunter (Republican of California) asked the DEA for a full account of the incident as well as a report on detention policies and the steps DEA is taking to address this and any other incidents.
San Diego NORML organized a protest outside the office at 4560 Viewridge Avenue on May 7, at 4:20. The student government at UCSD denounced the DEA over the incident and asked UCSD Chancellor Marye Anne Fox to take a "clear stand" on Chong's treatment.
Attorneys for Chong filed a $20 million claim against the Drug Enforcement Administration, claiming that Chong's treatment constituted torture under the law and seeking damages for pain and suffering, future medical and psychiatric treatment, and loss of future earnings. On July 30, 2013 it was reported that Chong had settled his claim against the DEA for $4.1 million. The DEA said it has introduced national detention standards including daily inspections and cameras in cells.
Inspector General's report
On July 8, 2014, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the U.S. Justice Department issued a report on this case. The OIG said they intervened in the investigation because it appeared the local DEA office was investigating the matter on its own, contrary to protocol, and because at least two of the local agents who were investigating the case had been involved with Chong and thus had a conflict of interest. Among other findings, the OIG report (issued as an executive summary) said that Chong was seen or heard while trapped in the holding cell by four DEA agents, who did nothing because they assumed someone else was taking care of it. The report also charged that supervisors responded improperly and in a way that compromised any potential criminal prosecutions of agents at fault.
DEA Internal review, punishment and aftermath
The DEA, via its Board of Professional Conduct, concluded its internal investigation of the incident in March 2015, punishing all six agents involved with letters of reprimand and additional suspensions of 5 and 7 days, respectively, without pay, for two of them. Chong's lawyer, Gene Iredale, has expressed his disappointment over the punishments, labeling them "insufficient," a sentiment echoed by many lawmakers and administrators, including Congressman Ted Lieu (D-Los Angeles), who has called for a civil rights investigation into the case. The Department of Justice, in a letter to Congress, has also articulated its dismay, stating that such incommensurate penalties are symptomatic of institutional inadequacies with the DEA "disciplinary process" and promising forthcoming recommendations for its improvement. Congress has also vowed rectification of said process by giving the DEA "administrator more authority over civil service disciplinary rules;" DEA officials have blamed this lack of authority for their Agency's history of inadequately disciplining and punishing its employees. These concerns and promises voiced, however, only target improvements to the DEA's disciplinary process to punish employees for incidences, like that experienced by Chong, after the fact and not to any potential systemic problems that allow them to happen in the first place. These latter issues, DEA spokesperson Rusty Payne assures, have been fixed, and such an assurance appears to have placated most lawmakers and administrators for now.
- "Student's ordeal: How was Daniel Chong lost in DEA detention?", MSNBC, May 4, 2012
- "California Man’s ‘Drug Holiday’ Becomes Four-Day Nightmare in Holding Cell", New York Times, May 2, 2012
- Watson, Julie, and Freking, Kevin, "Federal lawmaker: DEA debacle suggests breakdown", San Francisco Chronicle, May 3, 2012
- Letter to DEA from Rep. Duncan Hunter dated May 3, 2012
- "UCSD student's 5-day ordeal in DEA jail sparks outrage, anger", Los Angeles Times, May 3, 2012
- "Man resorts to drinking urine after being forgotten in jail". MSN. May 2, 2012. Retrieved 2012-05-03.
- McDonald, Jeff, "Man abandoned in DEA cell steps forward", San Diego Union Tribune, May 1, 2012
- Monica Garske (2012-04-29). "Detainee Forgotten at DEA Office: Law Enforcement Source". NBC San Diego.
- "San Diego Man Forgotten In Cell Says He Drank Urine". KBPS. 2012-05-02.
- Sarah, Grieco; Devine, Rory (May 2, 2012). "DEA Ignored All My Cries: Student". NBC San Diego. Retrieved 2012-05-03.
- Campbell, Andy (May 2, 2012). "Daniel Chong Drank Urine To Survive 5 Days In Holding Cell Without Food, Water". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2012-05-03.
- Alan, Duke (May 2, 2012). "Student forgotten in cell for 5 days will sue DEA". CNN. Retrieved August 12, 2012.
- "Student who was forced to drink his own urine after being forgotten in police cell for five days sues for $20m", Daily Mail, May 3, 2012
- Wilson, Stan (July 31, 2013). "Daniel Chong, forgotten in DEA cell, settles suit for $4.1 million". CNN. Retrieved 31 July 2013.
- "Protest Over DEA’s Treatment Of Daniel Chong – Monday, May 7th". The 420 Times. 2012-05-04.
- "Student forgotten in jail: UCSD students denounce treatment", Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2012
- Julie, Watson (May 2, 2012). "Student left in cell for 4 days files $20M claim". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2012-05-03.
- McDonald, Jeff (May 2, 2012). "Abandoned DEA detainee seeks $20 million". San Diego Union-Tribune. Archived from the original on August 12, 2012. Retrieved August 12, 2012.
- "Student left in DEA cell to get $4 million from US". Associated Press, cited by St. Louis Post-Dispatch. July 30, 2013. Retrieved 31 July 2013.
- McDonald, Jeff (July 9, 2014). "Errors cited in DEA detention case". San Diego Union Tribune. Retrieved 14 July 2014.