Federal drug agents are consistently taking cash from unsuspecting travelers, often not charging travelers with any crime.
Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents profile passengers of trains and airlines to identify if the commuter is likely to be holding substantial amounts of money, according to a USA Today investigation. The DEA set up task forces in 15 of the country’s largest airports and ultimately seized $209 million from approximately 5,200 people in a decade.
The author and leader of the investigation suspects this is under-reported:
DEA groups assigned to 15 major airports seized more than $200 million in cash over the past decade — an undercount pic.twitter.com/6ERzUAgXhj
— Brad Heath (@bradheath) August 10, 2016
“They count on this as part of the budget,” Louis Weiss, former supervisor of the DEA group assigned to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International airport, told USA Today. “Basically, you’ve got to feed the monster.”
A majority of the money is allocated to local police departments, which assign officers to the drug agency’s operation. The federal institution argues that these confiscations are merely part of their efforts to combat drug cartels, which rely on money to continue their illicit operations.
DEA Agents “employ strategies and methods that attack the financial infrastructure of these criminal organizations,” spokesperson Russ Baer said. These strategies are used beyond airlines, including “bus terminals, car rental agencies, storage facilities, vehicle repair shops, or other businesses,” Baer explained.
Eighty-seven cases in which the Department of Justice (DoJ) seized cash through legal proceedings were identified, but more are likely, since cash seizures are done without litigation (or in other words, done illegally). Of the 87 cases, only two were formally charged with a crime.
But what is the criteria for which travelers should be accosted? Agents said Zane Young fit a certain profile when they confronted him at Phoenix airport. Young purchased a one-way ticket from Orlando to Las Vegas with a layover in Phoenix, according to a civil complaint. The agents were able to dig up records that revealed Young had been arrested for a minor marijuana offense in the past.
Aside from the one-way ticket and prior offense, DEA operatives also flag if the passenger used cash to pay for the ticket or listed a non-functioning phone number in their traveling records.
DEA operatives also regard travel to Los Angeles or Fresno as inherently suspicious because marijuana and other narcotics are somewhat accessible there.
DEA agents believed he fit this profile and confiscated $36,000 from his luggage.
Young’s lawyer described the federal agency’s justification as “vague, ambiguous, overbroad.” He contends that any reasoning for asset seizure “can be manipulated to include just about anyone who flies on a commercial airline,” according to USA Today.
The DEA’s work in these transportation hubs is unrelated to anti-terrorism efforts that have been vamped up in aviation traveling since September 11th, 2001. The DEA rarely notifies airline companies that it is seizing the assets of its customers.
But they still get the information they need, often through disregard of the law. Amtrak’s inspector general revealed two years ago that DEA agents bribed a secretary with $854,460 in two decades in order to obtain passenger’s personal travel records. “Apart from [redacted] and [redacted] misuse of government funds, this investigation identified potential weaknesses in DEA’s task force program,” according to a report acquired by the USA Today.
The DEA has shown some success. A task force assigned to the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York was able to uncover and impound 27 kilograms of heroin and 92 kilograms of cocaine since 2013.
But the goal was not usually to make arrests or find drugs.
“We want the cash. Good agents chase cash,” George Hood, former supervisor of a DEA task force in Chicago’s O’Hare International airport, told USA Today. “It was just easier to get the asset, and that’s where you make a dent in the criminal organization.”
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