‘We want cash’: Drug agents seize $209mn in random profiling of 5,200 travelers – report

© Mike Segar
In 10 years, US drug agents have seized nearly $210 million from 5,200 Americans at airports and Amtrak train stations, a USA Today report revealed. Federal agents allegedly collected private data from paid informants, but only two people were real suspects.

Sources have told USA Today that Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) profiled random people at nearly every major US airline at 15 airports and Amtrak train across the country.

In most cases, people stopped for questioning fell under suspicion for travelling one-way to California, for paying for a ticket in cash or having checked luggage.

According to one court filing seen by USA Today, in 2009 DEA 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.”

In another case, Christelle Tillerson was forced to hand over $25,000 found in her suitcase after being questioned by the agents prior to boarding a flight from Detroit to Chicago. The Justice Department claimed that Tillerson turned into a suspect after the DEA “received information” that she was going to Los Angeles, but had a one-way ticket. Despite her profile of a former convict, she was not even questioned in relation to her drug trafficking case.

In 2015, traveler Zane Young was traveling from Orlando to Los Angeles when he suddenly became a suspected drug courier. The agents decided he fit the profile because had bought a last-minute, one-way ticket from Orlando to Las Vegas. Agents seized $36,000 from Young’s bags.

In neither of the two cases, profiled people were formally detained, arrested or charged, so as thousands of other single-outed passengers.

In fact, in most cases, the agents gave the suspected drug couriers a receipt for the cash and let them go without ever charging them with a crime.

USA Today identified 87 cases in recent years, but said that there many more travelers-agents encounters and money seizures because very few of them ever make it to court. In fewer cases, people managed to get at least some of their money back.

Thus, Tillerson managed to fight $21,000 back as $4,000 the government decided to withhold as “a small percentage of the funds should be forfeited.” Zane Young only got a half of the sum seized from him back.

Sources that USA Today spoke to, say that this practice has nothing to do with security and protection, but serves as just another source of the DEA’s budget.

“They count on this as part of the budget,” Louis Weiss, a former supervisor of the DEA group assigned to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, told the newspaper. “Basically, you’ve got to feed the monster.”

A lawyer, who has also commented on the issue, has agreed.

“Going after someone’s property has nothing to do with protecting them and it has everything to do with going after the money,” the Institute for Justice’s Renée Flaherty said.

To profile those “suspects” and harvest travel records, federal agents created a wide network of such informants, five current and former agents told USA Today.

Two years ago, Amtrak’s inspector general revealed that in nearly two decades, drug agents paid a secretary $854,460 in exchange for passenger information.

Court records suggest that agents have been profiling passengers on most major airlines, including American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, United and others, usually without the companies’ consent.

“Basically, it’s what that Amtrak guy was doing, but at the airport,” said a senior DEA agent told USA Today speaking on the condition of anonymity

Of those nearly 90 cases USA Today looked into, only two people were real suspects, who were charged with a drug-trafficking related crime.

“We want the cash. Good agents chase cash,” George Hood, who supervised a drug task force assigned to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago before he retired in 2007, told the newspaper. “It was just easier to get the asset, and that’s where you make a dent in the criminal organization.”

On August 10, a federal judge has ruled that the DEA would keep nearly $18,000 that a passenger found in a backpack aboard an Amtrak train at Washington, DC’s Union Station in 2014.

Civil asset forfeiture has been an issue of concerns across the nation as one of the threats to property rights. According to the Institute of Justice’s report “Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture” police take hundreds of millions of dollars in cash, cars, homes and other property annually. This confiscation does not depend on the owners’ guilt or innocence and no charges or convictions are usually required.