By A. M. Sunday September 1 2019
In March 2019 at Amtrak’s Southwest Albuquerque, New Mexico layover, two plain clothed DEA agents come aboard the train at the small station that it shares with the Greyhound bus service on the edge of downtown.
One agent walked to the back of the aisle in the first coach car and waited quietly observing, while the other is tasked with getting people to talk and open their bags.
One Special Agent, Perry, is a previous International Narcotics Interdiction Association’s Agent/Officer of the Year, with the DEA and is behind as many as 1,600 criminal cases against drug couriers, according to court documents.
His secret weapons are a train and bus depot in his district that seem to attract an inordinate amount of drug trafficking, and a capacious interpretation of the Constitution’s tolerance for stops and searches.
It’s legal for Perry to search people without probable cause, a warrant, or a dog because travelers supposedly realize that they have the right to decline to submit to his searches.
Perry and others in his interdiction unit have testified that they receive manifests ahead of time listing the passengers who will be arriving in Albuquerque. The courts have ruled this is also legal — functioning like a helpful tip sheet on whom to question.
Perry has also been captured on surveillance footage boarding empty Greyhound buses and pulling bags out of the checked luggage bin.
One clip captures him pressing on a bag so aggressively that he appears to be tackling it. But he stops short of opening the bag, which would be blatantly unconstitutional. Several people that Perry has seized cash from insist that they are not drug couriers and, in fact, were never criminally charged as such, though that didn’t help them get their money back, according to The Intercept.
His tactics offer a case study in how law enforcement targets mass transit in the war on drugs, generating thousands of busts and a steady stream of revenue from seized assets.
In an arrest affidavit in January 2019, DEA Special Agent Ryan Marriott wrote: “Los Angeles is a known source city for illegal narcotics.” He described how he found a courier on the Southwest Chief in Kansas City, Missouri. The man was allegedly trying to smuggle crystal meth in size 18 shoes.
It’s legal for Perry to search people without probable cause, a warrant, or a dog because travelers supposedly realize that they have the right to decline to submit to his searches. Perry and others in his interdiction unit have testified that they receive manifests ahead of time listing the passengers who will be arriving in Albuquerque.
The courts have ruled this is also legal — functioning like a helpful tip sheet on whom to question.
Perry is not the only cop riding the rails. His tactics offer a case study in how law enforcement targets mass transit in the war on drugs, generating thousands of busts and a steady stream of revenue from seized assets.
Amtrak’s Southwest Chief stops to pick up passengers. Those already on board have a short time to disembark for a cigarette or some fresh air.
Word apparently hasn’t reached the drug mules that their presence on the Southwest Chief and other passenger Amtrak trains is a known phenomenon that goes back decades, or at least back to the mid-1990s.
That’s when an unknown DEA agent first approached an Amtrak secretary for information about the itinerary of a passenger who was under arrest.
The Amtrak secretary started using his access to Amtrak’s reservation system to regularly look for people who “might be planning to transport illegal drugs or money,” based solely on subtle clues like one-way itineraries for private bedrooms.
The person who recruited the Amtrak secretary as a DEA snitch described him to Department of Justice auditors in 2015 as one of the most valuable interdictions.
The Amtrak Police Department learned about the arrangement in 2014, and by that time, the Amtrak secretary had amassed $854,460 from the DEA for his work snitching on riders. Amtrak police were unhappy because they were cut out of the deal.
They alerted the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General, which determined in an investigation that the payments were “wasting substantial government funds,” according to a heavily redacted copy of the OIG report obtained via an FOIA request by The Intercept.
By 2016, the DEA said it would stop using Amtrak employees as paid informants, after the OIG uncovered “improper” relationships between the law enforcement agency and nearly three dozen other Amtrak sources.
Cops patrolling train stations are typically using a tactic that law enforcement calls the “cold consent encounter,” so named because they approach people cold, on thin evidence they are drug couriers, and passengers consent to the searches, at least according to the officers’ versions of events.
It’s a legal loophole of sorts, commonly used by DEA agents (link) working mass transit to get around the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects people from unreasonable searches. (Travelers can’t decline a search once a drug dog makes a positive hit, however.)
The American Civil Liberties Union has described cold consent encounters as “definitely cold, not so consensual.” And the ACLU of New Mexico criticized Amtrak in particular for its “insidious alliance” with the DEA, after some information about the DEA’s monitoring of train travelers came out in a drug trafficking trial in 2001.
ACLU New Mexico Executive Director Peter Simonson said that travelers who are approached on the train or other mass transit often don’t know that they have the right to refuse police searches.
Especially troubling to him is research (link) showing that police, when acting on hunches rather than hard evidence, are more likely to let subconscious racial bias creep into their work.
The fact that it might be easy to find drug couriers on trains isn’t a compelling argument to him. “Law enforcement’s job would be much, much easier if they didn’t have to comport with any constitutional restrictions and could simply arrest people at will,” he said.
Special Agent Perry sometimes tells the people he searches that he’s at the station for security purposes, but the line between protecting travelers and intimidating them has been the subject of debate at this station.
In 2006, an Armenian couple described officers growing belligerent during a trip on the Southwest Chief the previous year when the couple was hesitant to agree to a bag search at Albuquerque.
The couple said that the agents then pulled out Diana Arutinova’s bras and underwear from her bag, while making jokes, and threw clothing and shoes from her luggage onto the floor. Edgar Manukian demanded the officers’ names.
“You want my name? What are you gonna do about it, asshole?” Perry allegedly responded.
Arutinova stepped between the men and said Perry then grabbed her by the arm and shook her so hard that her head struck the wall several times, not letting go until she screamed. Her arm was bruised from where he grabbed her, she later claimed in federal court.
The ACLU of New Mexico that year helped the couple file a lawsuit against the United States government, Perry, and two other cops. (The ACLU of New Mexico’s Simonson says they later reached an out-of court settlement with the DEA.)