The Corner

Law & the Courts

If You Think the Government Holds Its Employees Accountable, Read This

Through my friend (and law school classmate) Ken White at Popehat, I’ve been following the terrible story of UC San Diego student Daniel Chong. Arrested for smoking pot, Chong was accidentally left in a small holding cell for five full days without food or water. He screamed. He kicked the doors. He survived in part by drinking his own urine. He began to lose his mind and even contemplated suicide. When he was finally discovered, he was apparently suffering from kidney failure and rushed to the hospital.

Chong secured a multi-million dollar settlement for his ordeal, and the DEA ordered an internal review to determine appropriate discipline for the responsible employees. Its verdict? “Four written reprimands, a five-day suspension, and a seven-day suspension.” Ken’s reaction mirrors my own:

If I seize someone, handcuff them, lock them in a room, and leave them to die, I will suffer severe consequences. I will lose my job, especially if I acted while performing my duties. I will go to jail. I will suffer catastrophic personal financial losses. My name will be broadcast far and wide.

That’s the difference between me and a federal employee.

The DEA agents who arrested Andrew Chong for smoking dope and left him to die got reprimands or suspensions that were shorter than my last tension headache. You and I — the taxpayers — paid Andrew Chong the $4.1 million settlement he secured; the agents did not. They are not named in any of the articles about the incident. They will not go to jail. They will not lose their jobs.

No one doubts that there are many good and courageous DEA agents, just as there are many good, competent, and effective federal employees at all levels of the government, but it is equally true that federal employees (and many state employees) enjoy an immunity from accountability that few of us can comprehend. This does not make our government better, more efficient, or more effective at protecting citizens’ rights. It simply makes the government better at protecting its own.

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