On gaining custody and the responsibilities that accrue: the DEA has some public explaining to do.

It is unfortunate that the current state of our society drives most Americans’ thoughts to divorce and bitter rivalry over the control of children when the term “custody” is mentioned. Defined as “The care, possession, and control of a thing or person. The retention, inspection, guarding, maintenance, or security of a thing within the immediate care and control of the person to whom it is committed” it is also the legal detention of a person by a lawful authority. Focus on the “possession” part of the definition seems to be current norm but there’s a reason that “care” is also part of it. Or, rather, it should be.

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) conducted a drug raid in the San Diego area and scooped up UC San Diego student Daniel Chong. They hauled him back to their facility, conducted a 4-hour interrogation, and then locked him in a holding cell. And then, apparently, they just left him there – alone, untended – for 5 days. No food, no water, no sanitation, no communication, nothing. Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-CA) has opened an inquiry into the matter:

Representative Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) sent a letter to DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart asking the agency to comply with an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the detention of 23-year-old Daniel Chong. The UC San Diego engineering student was arrested during a drug raid, interrogated for four hours, then locked in a holding cell and left there for five days without food, water, or access to a toilet.

During those five days, Chong was forced to drink his own urine. Fearing that he would die in the cell, he broke the lens of his glasses and attempted to carve a message to his mother on his arm using a shard. Chong then tried to commit suicide by swallowing the broken pieces of his eye glasses. He was discovered unconscious and covered in feces, and admitted to a San Diego hospital suffering from dehydration, kidney failure, and a punctured esophagus.

I am all for conducting a thorough investigation and I certainly don’t want anyone just stood up in front of a firing squad without knowing the details of what happened. But I have to be honest: I cannot fathom a set of circumstances that would even remotely justify or excuse this. When dealing with material evidence, there’s a process law enforcement agencies follow called a “chain of custody” wherein that evidence is guided from 1 set of hands to the other throughout the investigation so that the evidence is never tainted nor is it simply lost. At the very best, that process wasn’t followed where Chong was concerned. Some agent locked him in that holding cell and knew for a fact he was there. How does someone get put in a holding cell in a DEA office and no one know? Did that agent positively advise the next person in the chain that he was there? Did that next person simply drop the ball? Did someone in the DEA office there in San Diego simply die and break the chain? Is there no procedure in place where the holding cells are checked daily just to see if anything’s going on in there? Where was the case file and was there any notation made that a suspect was – here’s that word again – in custody?

Or is there some darker force at work, here? Did the agents fully intend to lock him away, intent on making Chong feel like he was being left to die in order to get some bogus confession out of him? And then, for reasons unknown, they simply let it go on too long?

Chong has filed a lawsuit against the DEA. I’m not usually a big fan of huge lawsuits – Chong is asking for $20 million – but perhaps it’s going to take a big stick upside the metaphorical agency head to get their attention. And I’m inclined to say that regardless of whether this was intentional or simply stunning incompetence the agents responsible should not be given the protection of official immunity from their actions. Either way, the identities of those agents and the exact sequence of events should be released to the public. Feel free to wait until after the investigation but no “disciplinary actions have been taken and procedures put in place to avoid this again” kind of announcement is going to suffice.