Student abandoned in cell for 5 days by DEA gets apology but wants $20 million

Mark blogged yesterday about Daniel Chong, a 23-year-old college student in San Diego who was detained by the Drug Enforcement Administration on "420 day" without charges, then abandoned in a holding cell for 5 days with no food or water. He drank his own urine in an effort to stave off fatal dehydration.

Today, he received an apology from the DEA. The Associated Press reports that "San Diego Acting Special Agent-In-Charge William R. Sherman said in a statement that he was troubled by the treatment of Daniel Chong and extended his 'deepest apologies' to him."

Chong's attorney says that's not enough. They intend to sue for $20 million. From the Los Angeles Times:

Chong, the agency said, was "accidentally left in one of the cells." He told NBC San Diego he kicked the door "many, many times" in a futile attempt to get agents' attention.

When they finally found Chong, he was taken to Sharp Memorial Hospital, where he spent five days. Iredale said Chong, who was close to kidney failure and had trouble breathing, spent three of those days in the intensive-care unit. Chong also suffered hallucinations and "thought he was going insane," Iredale said. Chong told NBC San Diego he tried to kill himself by breaking his glasses and cutting his wrists.

"I didn't care if I died," he told the station. "I was completely insane."

Regarding the hallucinations, Reuters reports that they were anime-themed at times. His lawyer says he "had Japanese cartoon characters telling him where to find water."

More coverage at the San Diego Union-Tribune, and the local San Diego NBC affiliate, and the local Fox News affiliate. There's a cellphone video of a press conference with Chong from yesterday, but the audio isn't great.

(Photo: Daniel Chong. Credit: K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)


  1. Deep apologies aren’t good enough? “Dear sir,  I have seen the things that you and the government of the US do and I understand that your pockets are far deeper than your heart.”

    By the way, snark and sarcasm aside, I agree: an apology isn’t good enough. While it seems like an insane amount of money to sue for, it is perhaps more of a ‘well fuck you too’ kind of thing that will cause someone(s) to lose their job(s) and make them think better of it next time…

    (yes, next time we’ll have a law that says you can’t sue the DEA for any reason what so ever. Ha! That’ll learn ’em)

    1.  I would say the fact he is alive is almost a fluke that was dependent on his health before going into the cell and how warm/cold the cell was…. 5 days would be enough to kill someone under many conditions…

    2. $20M seems like a pretty staggering chunk of change, but it seems ‘reasonable’ when you compare it to American litigation in general; I’m sure plenty of other folks have received comparable amounts without almost having been killed, or driven out of their minds. I gather SOP is to make an ambit claim.

      And when suing a large organisation like the DEA, I suppose half the point is to make it sting enough for the bastards to consider doing something to prevent future incidents of a similar nature.

      On another note, it occurs to me that this episode could readily be exploited by drug law reformists; this guy was almost given the death penalty for smoking a bit of weed.

      1. I think you’d be surprised by how low the amount most people walk away with after litigation often is in the U.S. (and I’m talking before legal fees take a chunk). And what is “American litigation in general?” Does that include class actions with hundreds of plaintiffs? That said, you’re right about the ambit claims.

        1. I got like three class action settlements last year. I think altogether it was about $20.

          1. You don’t think it’s absolutely bizarre that you had three of these in a year? I’m Canadian and I’ve never known a single person who was in any way involved in a class action.

          2. A couple of them were against a national fitness chain where I taught yoga for a couple of months. I’ve gotten a few against Microsoft or similar. If you have any kind of car/home/health insurance, hardware, software or an employment history, the CA lawsuits are out there. They probably just don’t have your current address. The MS type ones are usually only for a buck or two.

        2. Sorry, you should prolly amend “American litigation in general” to “what makes the news in Oz”.

          The perception is of a place where lawyers have run away with the system, and is often the subject of mockery and/or hand-wringing.

    3. The rule in the US is that you can’t be awarded more than you asked for. The court (judge, jury etc) has discretion to award you anything from zero to the full amount you sued for.

    1. I wouldn’t be surprised if giving up a huge award (hopefully this goes to a jury) under your watch is one of the only ways for the people involved to get fired.

      You know what they say, San Diego Acting Special Agent-In-Charge William R. Sherman, the longer your title the less your responsibilities. Think he was hand-picked for this role?

      And you know what? What the fuck is a “Acting Special Agent In Charge,” anyway? Who was the previous Special Agent In Charge, and what happened to him? Is there even a “Special Agent In Charge,” when their chain of command doesn’t fuck up so royally?

      Where is the “Special Agent In Charge” in this org chart?

      What does Michelle Leonhart have to say about this? Does the buck stop somewhere below her? Thomas M. “Hauk” Harrigan?

      1. Uninsured American in an ICU for 3 days…. $20 Mil might cover most of his medical bill.

    2. $5K is plenty as a punitive damage.

      It’s only “punitive” if the organization in question feels the loss. How long do you think it takes the DEA to blow through five grand?

      Fire the person responsible too.

      You really think there’s only one person responsible? If one person’s screw up can leave a prisoner stranded without water for five days then there are some serious organizational problems present. What if the wrong DEA agent gets sick suddenly?

    3. $5k is not even anywhere near adequate for compensatory damages, let alone punitive ones. This is one (dumb luck) step away from negligent homicide.

    4. I, on the other hand, would like to see an amendment to the Constitution that awards statutory damages of $1 million per day.  And one year in prison per day for everyone responsible.

      1.  As long as you don’t mind your tax dollars paying that Mil a Day.

        That 20 mil he want’s… is gonna come outta your pocket.

        1. We voters and taxpayers share the blame for allowing this mess to happen, so why shouldn’t we share the cost? The DEA didn’t just materialize out of thin air.

          1. I hate nasty conundrums.  Voters in Oregon didn’t put Katherine Harris in a position of power in Florida.  Voters didn’t get to veto Diebold and Sequoia paperless voting machines.

            The army of lobbyists in DC with incredibly deep pockets has one objective from their masters:  “Looking out for Number One”, the lobbyists’ masters being everything from the military industrial complex to McDonald’s and WalMart.

            Then there’s a well-oiled propaganda machine all over the airwaves that is intent on keeping it that way.

            Crap legislation like the Patriot Act is steamrolled through Congress. There’s not a lot of “voters’ margin of error” in those results.  The system as a whole, the Beltway milieu, is diseased, schizophrenic.

            Where seeing it again with the SOPAPIPA and CISPA.

            Then when people are sick and tired and decline to vote, the media starts pronouncing 26% of the registered voters (not even 26% of the American people) as “A mandate” (I love you, Mr Gil Scott Heron).

            My point being, it’s not as clear-cut as “Voters and taxpayers share the blame“, which is like blaming the passengers when their airplane is hijacked.

        2. I think with that kinda money on the line, it wouldn’t be long before things were straightened up enough that such damages were never awarded. And as Antinious, Homeric villian he is, said last night,  Chong might suffer kidney failure at some later date and have to go on dialysis and die young. Don’t you think your health, an life past forty are worth 20 mil?

        3. 20 mil is not that much for taxes. I hear this argument over and over again oh 20 mil is so much money. 

          20 million would be a lot of money if this happened every single day multiple times a day. To an entire state paying this as a one time fee is peanuts. If you want to pay less taxes, instead fire the goons who waste government money by not doing their job. This whole department should be shut down and replaced.

        4. If that encourages the taxpayers to storm the fucking Bastille, good.

        5. “As long as you don’t mind your tax dollars paying that Mil a Day.”

          I’d have it come from the prison-industrial budget.

          1.  Because the money in this “prison-industrial budget”  is made by Uncle Arther in a small back room and in no way is funded with tax money.

            Government  bureaucracy: Funded by Unicorn fart’s & magic beans….

        6. The 20 mil he wants is less than 1% of what the DEA has already taken out of your pocket. The military blows through almost as much as the DEA’s yearly budget in a single day. It’s not even a grain of a sand in tax terms – it’s barely even a single electron.

          I’m naive enough to think that even in this day and age a government agency wouldn’t be able to increase their budget on the back of “Sundry court costs for illegally detaining people and almost killing them”.

        7. if it makes the department do their friggin job better, it is definitely worth 20mil!

          think of it as a team of consultants finding an error the tough way.

      2.  No shit. Some states lump unlawful detention in with kidnapping and have life sentences for both. Why the fuck don’t popo get the same beef?

      3. an amendment is a big deal. What degree of criminal negligence are we talking about here that would be covered by an amendment?

        There’s a reason even first degree murder is covered by state laws.

    5.  I’m pretty sure I can come up with 5k, if I do can I lock you up for a week, make you drink piss, and land you in the hospital with kidney failure and the belief that you may, and wish to, die?

      1.  I’ll pitch in and help pay to do this to someone if they think $5k is enough after almost being killed and drinking my own piss during the time I’m going crazy.

        1. I know a reality TV producer that’ll chip in the whole $5k

          (ok, no, I don’t actually know one who would … even reality TV producers have limits, you know)

    6.  Have you seen 127 hours? Do you know what 5 days of confinement without water can do to someone? 5 million is plenty, and what he’ll get after attorney fees & taxes & stuff

      1.  The K stand for kilo as in “thousand”. I know some people have difficulty with metrics but million is not thousand.

  2. At least they kept him safe from those Ecstasy pills. They say that stuff can be harmful to your health.

    1. They left a bag of meth in the cell with him, and after several days without food or water he ate it in desperation.

      So no, they didn’t even manage that.

      1. sometime after that he inhaled parts of the glasses he was wearing, and had broken in order to cut a goodbye note into his arm for his mother.

        I say give him the pensions of the agents involved.

  3. Just declare him enemy combatant and his detainment becomes a forced interrogation technique.

    1. “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.”

  4. You know, I’m not usually on the side of “guy who sues for crazy number” but if anyone deserves to sue for a ridiculous amount of money it is this guy. I really hope he wins. 

    1.  It not about how much he is suing for, it is all about who should be paying the bill. When it is blatant ‘criminal’ negligence, it is hardly fair for the general public to pay the ‘full’ penalty some of that pain should be shared with the people that caused it.

  5. I understand how you can think someone is gone and therefore not be looking for him, but don’t they check the cells regularly?
    Given that he was lucky to live five days without watet, “Sorry” doesn’t seem adequate, no matter how sincere.

    1. I was wondering about the cleaning staff.  One would think that, if it was thought that a holding cell was empty but had been used to detain someone previously, they’d at least give it a once-over.

  6. What I want to know is exactly where do they have these holding cells such that no one was close enough to hear him for 5 days? Obviously not the local police station. Why would a DEA field office be un-staffed for that long?

    Then there’s this gem:

    Yoo also confirmed a DEA statement that Chong had found a bag of white powder in the cell and ate its contents, which tests later proved to be methamphetamine. The DEA statement did not say what the bag of drugs was doing in the cell.

    Well, that explains the hallucinations. PROTIP: If you’re in a holding cell typically used for drug busts, don’t eat any bags of funny white powder you find.

    1. PROTIP: If you’re in a holding cell typically used for drug busts, don’t eat any bags of funny white powder you find.

      He was already starving, severely dehydrated and in the early stages of organ failure. When you’re already half-crazed and at the point of suicide, trying that funny white powder probably doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

    2.  The drugs helped keep him alive! It doesn’t say in this article, but in others it says he had to drink his own urine!
      I say the DEA ought to be really penalized by having to drop the pointless, failed, useless, and damaging drug war.

      1. I doubt the drugs helped keep him alive. I somehow don’t think a powerful stimulant like crystal meth would help much in a starved, dehydrated state.

        Could have been it was the drugs that made him hallucinating and suicidal. If that baggie had been uncut heroin, he would be stone-dead right now.

        EDIT: inb4 MOST of the conspiracy theorists drowning the discussion in babbling about this being an intentional psych experiment.

    3. “PROTIP: If you’re in a holding cell typically used for drug busts, don’t eat any bags of funny white powder you find.”

      Try to remember that when you’re dehydrated to the point of hallucinating.

  7. As has been pointed out before, suing is wonderful, he should get a chunk of cash for this nonsense.

    But suing the taxpayers makes no sense.

    Instead of a one time payment of $20M from the taxpayers, he should get a lifetime 20% lien on the salaries of all of the people responsible, right up the chain of command. All of them. Personally.

    Then, HE should get to decide whether they continue working to pay him or go to prison and don’t pay him.

    1. The taxpayers elected the guys who wrote the policies and appointed the officials responsible for this whole mess. We reap what we sow.

      1. As one of those taxpayers, I’d prefer this kid get twenty million than the money sit in the DEA’s budget funding their ridiculous “war”.

        I mean, as far as I’m concerned, the money is already gone. Better it go to someone who deserves it than a group of thugs.

        1. Exactly. Organizational problems don’t go away if you only punish a few individuals. Everybody who was part of the system that screwed the kid over needs to bear some of the responsibility, up to and including the taxpayers.

        2. “As one of those taxpayers, I’d prefer this kid get twenty million than the money sit in the DEA’s budget funding their ridiculous ‘war’.”

          DEA will have its cake and eat it, too.  A cake with “Budget deficit” written on the icing.

        3. The DEA makes a lot of its budget in property seizures. The majority of property seizures involve marijuana. Marijuana is legal at least for medicinal use in many states and in the process of being legalized in many others. 
          The DEA has no HONEST business while it keeps the till from drug busts.

      2.  Trenchant observation…  to which I’ll add, we don’t often enough coordinate en masse and demand that those responsible be held responsible or pay their penalties.

      3.  Well, the voting machines say that’s who we voted for.

        But personally, I don’t believe voting that can’t be audited.

        As far as I’m concerned nobody voted for anybody.  Prove me wrong.

        1. We don’t get to dodge responsibility that easily. The War on Drugs pre-dates modern voting machines.

          1. @google-4b3c8a17ed014a95db54ba5b738648c0:disqus :

            How are “we” responsible?

            We live under a government that exists because we allow it to. Our society largely condones, even supports, the War On Drugs. Collectively, we haven’t done much to stop events like this one or support the civil rights of accused criminals in general. That’s how we are responsible.

      4.  …but Daniel Chong is a taxpayer too! So really, it’s his own fault, and he shouldn’t receive anything.

        1. Good point, if he gets that taxpayer money he should throw in his 6.4 cents just like everybody else.

    2. You want that to happen, you’re going to have to overcome the law enforcement unions and the political establishment, as well as the voting preferences of the constituency. So, saying it “makes no sense,” makes as much sense as going up against all of those forces alone. At the end of the day, you appear to be trying to dissuade his efforts where you supply none.

  8. Seems like this kind of negligence rises past civil and into criminal culpability. There should be a prosecution, in addition to a payout.

    1.  Nope, because DEA officials / cops / government people in general are effectively immune from criminal prosecution for things related to their jobs.  If he’d died, there might have been a manslaughter charge.  Might.

      1. Sadly, you’re probably right- but it seems as though sovereign immunity ought to disappear in cases of gross negligence like this- when someone clearly failed to do their job.

  9. while he was at the intensive-care unit: was he visited by one of the looks-like-medical-staff-but-in-reality-was-one-of-the-bailiff-pressure-group-guys?

  10. It sucks what happened, but that’s $4 million a day.  That’s incredibly excessive.  You got an apology, which I agree, is not enough.  Maybe $5 million, at the most, is what you should get.  I think that your greed is going to be your doom.  

    1. Do you understand what “punitive” damages means? If it’s not a significant chunk of somebody’s budget then it doesn’t do anything to punish the party responsible. If it’s not enough to force belt-tightening or layoffs then it’s not enough to bring organizational reform.

        1. So by your reasoning there should never be any kind of punitive damages against a government agency since they probably won’t enact any meaningful reforms either way.

          1. I’m saying I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were that student.  I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve compensation.  I just wouldn’t count on it.  There have been natural disasters that have devastated certain states where people didn’t get anything from the government, even though they should have under FEMA.  They haven’t seen the money they need/were promised to rebuild.  They were victims who never got any compensation or justice.  What makes you think that this guy is the exception?  Why does he deserve it more than these people who are still suffering?

          2. @JoJoRight:disqus : As I stated in my first response to your post, punitive damages aren’t about what the victim deserves for his suffering. They’re about punishing the guilty party enough to discourage similar behavior in the future. As for whether he’s likely to get those damages (or even basic compensation damages) that’s an entirely different question.

    2. Perhaps most people ask for more, not to get it, but to be “talked down” to what they deserve? You start at 5mil, they’ll offer you 100k, etc.

  11. This seems almost satirical of the way that American law enforcement treats drug users.  The scariest part: I don’t doubt for a second that if he died in that cell, like most people would have, he would have gone down as a missing person.  

    1. Exactly.  Which also raised the question in my mind as to who this has happened to before – perhaps some non-college-attending type who has less social standing?  We’d never hear about it.

      1. Exactly. If he hadn’t been brought in with other people, which I’m assuming he was, and if he was a bit more unknown, I’m not even sure if they would have let him out at all due to the inevitable blowback. I’m not saying they’re that awful, but the idea alone is scary as hell.

  12. Just thinking about how we would have never learned the truth about all of this had he actually died alone is worth 20 million.

  13. The whole “unroll your blanket and find a bag of meth” thing just adds enough surreality to make me think this was some crazy psych experiment. How on earth does a bag of meth get in a blanket being given to someone who is being detained? “It’s the DEA, you can’t expect them to keep track of EVERY SINGLE LITTLE BAG OF METH in the entire place.” 

  14. $20 million is a big enough fuck you, which he deserves. He could have died, probably should have.

  15. I always refer to Guantanamo as a dungeon, because that’s what we’re running even if it’s above-ground. That’s pretty much how we view incarceration as a country now.

    Is there any doubt that Chong was imprisoned and left to die in a dungeon? “Holding cell” is a euphemism.

    1. So why would they intentionally leave him to die and let everyone else go, especially after telling him he wasn’t being charged?

      This was a horrible mistake, but it was a mistake. Similar things have happened in hospitals and nursing homes.

      1. When you have people’s lives in your hands and you know it, you don’t get to make mistakes like that.

        Oh, shit. I forgot to feed the baby last week.

      2. You embellished my comment with the word “intentionally”. And seem to have missed the point that we now have a society that allows people to be disappeared by the government.

  16. 20 million is not enough to undue the psychological effects of torture. Money can buy you a lot of coke and strippers to dull the pain, but it will likely have scarred Chong for life.

    Folks who really think this is “a lot of money” should take a look at the payrolls of these half-cocked overzealous government agencies and decide where cuts should really begin. 

  17. Call me stupid, but I don’t understand the concept of “sovereign immunity”. The government employees who screw up cannot be prosecuted and put in jail, or forced to pay damages. But the government agency can be sued for damages. Who’s the sovereign here? The government or the government employees?

  18. You know what ? Fuck the money. I propose that  goons who are responsible for horrors like what happened to that kid not only lose their jobs and pretty much everything they own, but their victims be allowed to drag those assholes into a public square and beat the mortal fuck out of them, with full network coverage, immediately followed by a lifetime ban from any position of power or responsibility, ANYWHERE, including a Chick-Fil-A – As a reminder to their scuzzy brethren who lurk in every bureaucracy, what will happen to them if they get caught.

    Bureaucratic toads are no more scared of their agencies paying financial penalties or country-club prison sentences for themselves than violent criminals are afraid of the death penalty. The only thing that frightens them is the possibility of being treated in kind by the people that they routinely humiliate and harass.

    Like all bullies, they’re cowards, whose greatest fear is not Justice, but PAYBACK – A king-hell dose of their own fucking medicine, delivered straight to their defenseless asses. Can you IMAGINE the way blowhards like Glenn Beck or Mitt Romney would publicly shit themselves if they were placed on a stage with the full knowledge that the people they’d callously wronged were coming for them, with no where for them to run or hide ? Or the shockwave a scene like that would send through the nervous systems of the other flatworms who have burrowed into the guts of every level of government ?

    It might be worth a try, is all I’m saying.

    1. your line of thinking just replaces one form of corruption with another. Corporal and perhaps even capital punishment starts to get applied to more and more minor transgressions until you’re in a different kind of police-state with… who? you as the leader?

      1.  I know, I know….The most corrupt and the most powerful would simply insulate themselves from that kind of punishment, in the same way that the DEA swine in this case are doing for themselves. I was mainly blowing off steam.

  19. Awarded damages are generally divided into 3 kinds:

    1. Compensation or injury damages, which are awarded directly to the plaintiff and whose level is determined in relation to the injury caused by the actions. This is usually the only compensation the plaintiff receives themselves

    2. Compensation of legal fees – so the plaintiff isn’t out of pocket for having litigated. This money goes to the lawyers of course

    3. Punitive damages and extra sum intended to be high enough to make the total award have a detrimental effect on future action. It should be noted that this money is often not awarded to the plaintiff but sometimes to the state, split between state and plaintiff, or to some charity or other body. Statutes vary from state to state.

    The idea is that the total award needs to be enough to be punitive and act as a deterrent but that the plaintiff should therefore receive an excessive windfall just because the defendant is a large organisation for whom the award needs to be high to have this effect.

    So he’s not going to be getting anything like $ 20m if he wins.

  20. well there was a guy in Chicago, who got into an elevator on a late friday afternoon, and didn’t get rescued until Monday AM. (featured in a NOVA episode on elevators) he sued and got $200,000.  

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