Think the police state isn’t catching up to us all?
Just better hope that nothing happens to you, even if you aren’t doing anything wrong… because authorities are now combing through travel data and flagging anyone who might be carrying cash.
They want the cash, and the DEA say they are targeting couriers for drug money, but in most cases simply seizing cash and release suspects without charge.
Federal drug agents regularly mine Americans’ travel information to profile people who might be ferrying money for narcotics traffickers — though they almost never use what they learn to make arrests or build criminal cases.
Instead, that targeting has helped the Drug Enforcement Administration seize a small fortune in cash.
DEA agents have profiled passengers on Amtrak trains and nearly every major U.S. airline, drawing on reports from a network of travel-industry informants that extends from ticket counters to back offices, a USA TODAY investigation has found. Agents assigned to airports and train stations singled out passengers for questioning or searches for reasons as seemingly benign as traveling one-way to California or having paid for a ticket in cash.
The DEA surveillance is separate from the vast and widely-known anti-terrorism apparatus that now surrounds air travel, which is rarely used for routine law enforcement. It has been carried out largely without the airlines’ knowledge.
It is a lucrative endeavor, and one that remains largely unknown outside the drug agency. DEA units assigned to patrol 15 of the nation’s busiest airports seized more than $209 million in cash from at least 5,200 people over the past decade after concluding the money was linked to drug trafficking, according to Justice Department records. Most of the money was passed on to local police departments that lend officers to assist the drug agency.
“They count on this as part of the budget,” said Louis Weiss, a former supervisor of the DEA group assigned to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. “Basically, you’ve got to feed the monster.”
Since no proof of a crime is necessary to keep the cash, and few cases reach court at all in the first place, there is little to keep the agency from becoming nothing more than a shakedown operation.
And there is no doubt that there is misuse. Take this case from last year, where a 24 year old student had $11,000, his life savings from part-time jobs and the sort, taken by police who claimed his luggage smelled like marijuana.
However, there was no drug transaction of any kind taking place:
When he visited relatives in Cincinnati the winter before last, Charles Clarke, a 24-year-old college student, took with him $11,000 that he had saved from wages, financial aid, and family gifts because he did not want to lose it. He did not count on the armed robbers at the airport, who took every last cent as he was about to board a flight back to Orlando in February 2014. Adding insult to injury, the thieves were cops, who justified confiscating Clarke’s life savings by claiming his luggage and cash smelled like pot.
More than a year later, Clarke is still trying to get his money back… While Clarke admits that he was a recreational pot smoker, he says he was never involved in the marijuana trade. “I’m not a drug dealer,” he told Vox‘s German Lopez. “I never have been.”
But the federal prosecutors who are pursuing forfeiture of Clarke’s money do not have to prove he was a drug dealer. If the case goes to trial, it is enough for them to show by a preponderance of the evidence—a much lower standard than the proof beyond a reasonable doubt required for a criminal conviction—that the money had something to do with marijuana, whether it came from selling the drug or was intended to buy it. Meanwhile, the government keeps the cash based on “probable cause that it was proceeds of drug trafficking or was intended to be used in an illegal drug transaction,” and the burden is on Clarke to recover it.
While it may therefore be considered safer not to carry cash, especially through busy airports that law enforcement has decided to focus on, it is certainly not a crime to carry cash. But the problem is that there is little recourse for people who may have been falsely accused, and it can take years to get back the money, if indeed any money is ever returned at all.
Moreover, it isn’t just cash anymore. State highway patrol units have now been spotted in Oklahoma using electronic devices to freeze funds on prepaid cards as well as credit cards. Data can be sucked up from phones, laptops and other devices, too.
This is indeed a scary time.
The problem is that technology is making it easier to hone in on high priority targets for questioning – golden goose suspects who is carrying a fortune, perhaps without a good explanation. USA Today notes the importance of access to a database that supposed to prevent terrorism, but in reality facilitates targeting sitting ducks in a database of people to regard as guilty until proven innocent who might yield a payday.
What the drug agency could not do was access the sea of data the government collects from airlines to spot potential terrorists. Airlines must provide basic information about all of their passengers to the Department of Homeland Security three days before a flight so that they can be checked against terrorist watch lists.
It’s literal highway robbery, and the guns come with badges. Worst of all, it could potentially target anyone, and is sure to snag more than a handful of innocent people who stand to lose everything:
The DEA came under fire for harvesting travel records two years ago, when Amtrak’s inspector general revealed that agents had paid a secretary $854,460 over nearly two decades in exchange for passenger information. A later investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general found that the secretary initially looked up reservations only at agents’ request, but quickly “began making queries on his own initiative, looking for indicators that a person might be planning to transport illegal drugs or money on a train,” according to a report obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Five current and former agents said the DEA has cultivated a wide network of such informants, who are taught to be on the lookout for suspicious itineraries and behavior. Some are paid a percentage if their tips lead to a significant seizure.
Court records show agents and informants flagged travelers for questioning based on whether they were traveling with one-way tickets, had paid in cash, had listed a non-working phone number on the reservation or had checked luggage.
Agents said Zane Young fit that profile when they approached him at Phoenix’s airport in 2015: An informant had told them that Young had bought a last-minute, one-way ticket from Orlando to Las Vegas, with a stop in Phoenix, according to a civil complaint filed in federal court there. And he appeared to have a record of having been arrested for a minor marijuana offense. They seized $36,000 from his bags.
Young’s lawyer, Thomas Baker, said in a court filing that the drug agency’s profile was “vague, ambiguous, overbroad, and can be manipulated to include just about anyone who flies on a commercial airline.”
Especially with the emphasis on travel data of passengers who are not being investigated for a particular crime, it is a major problem for due process under law, and is only fueling new levels of corruption for authorities who are supposed to be, in theory, watchdogs of the community.
Exactly how often agents contact people based on their travel records is impossible to determine. Few cash seizures are challenged in court; those that aren’t leave no public record.
In many cases, current and former agents said, it was not clear that the couriers had committed a crime for which they could be arrested — at least not one that prosecutors would be willing to pursue…
“We want the cash. Good agents chase cash,” said George Hood, who supervised a drug task force assigned to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago before he retired in 2007. “It was just easier to get the asset, and that’s where you make a dent in the criminal organization.”
The DEA justifies its actions on the basis that it is undermining the assets and profitability of drug operations, but that is at best a generalization.
The cash motive is clearly driving the action, not legitimate efforts in the obviously failed and deeply flawed war on drugs.
The DEA would not comment on how it obtains records of Americans’ domestic travel, or on what scale. But court records and interviews with agents, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not permitted to discuss DEA operations, make clear that it is extensive. In one 2009 court filing, for example, Justice Department lawyers said agents took $44,010 from two people traveling on a train to Denver after picking them out during “a routine review of the computerized travel manifest for Amtrak.”
By itself, a suspicious itinerary amounts to little more than a tip; it’s not enough evidence to permit agents to detain passengers, search their bags or seize their cash. Instead, agents use it to approach travelers and ask if they would be willing to answer a few questions, a process that often ends with them either asking for permission to search the person’s bags or having a dog sniff them for drugs.
The concern is that the shady practice of civil asset forfeiture is being expanded to the airports and other travel hubs. Ideally, the practice should be scaled back dramatically and put in check with actual procedures, warrants and prosecution.
Already giving police departments and government agencies an excuse to seize quick cash and hard assets from anyone even slightly connected to a case (like the home of a mother of a suspected drug dealer), the practice raises serious ethical questions.
Many of the cases are never prosecuted, because then the seized money will have to be accounted for and presented as Exhibit A – and they’d rather keep it.
In travel, it seems that the DEA is teaming up with local police and splitting the proceeds. Suspected marijuana dealers, for instance, are tracked through travel records, and flagged based on certain algorithms. In these cases, the DEA doesn’t bust an individual when they are carrying the drugs, but when they return with the money – which is more liquid and easily divisible among the gang of LEOs on the take.
This is the same profession that, in one local department, began stealing property from unlocked cars – ostensibly to teach the drivers a lesson in carelessness, and to ‘prevent’ actual thieves from seizing the property first.
New Haven police announced this week that officers will be looking for unlocked cars with valuables in plain sight. The police said they plan to enter these cars without permission or a warrant to collect the belongings so they “are protected from criminals.”
The police believe that if they get to the valuables before the criminals, they will be doing the car owners a favor. At the same time, they are hoping to send a message to people to be more careful with their automobile security.
Finding large amounts of cash in an unlocked car could easily result in a line of interrogation that asks the driver or owner of the vehicle to disprove an assumption that something is quite suspicious about the cash. This is the foundation of the operation, and a dangerous power to let grow in government and police enforcement.
Why? Because in many departments, nearly every cop is on the take, especially when it comes to enforcement in the drug war. It’s been that way for decades.
The last leg of the war on drugs is fueling the war on cash, which is using the carrot and the stick to corral everyone onto the digital grid, where this sort of thing doesn’t have to happen anymore.