When you get off a train, do you get off ahead of passengers? Or do you get off behind passengers? When you're going on a trip, do you come off as nervous? Or are you an unusually calm traveler? How about if you make a phone call at a station, do you look around? Or do you stare straight ahead?

If you don't know the answers to these questions, you'd better figure them out now. Because unless you get off in stride with other train passengers, live at the elusive intersection between anxiety and tranquility, and close your eyes during phone calls, you're a suspicious person subject to questioning by Amtrak police.

According to the Guidelines for Amtrak Customer Service Employees in Texas, which the ACLU has received as a result of a FOIA request, ticket agents may come in contact with travelers whose conduct is "indicative of criminal activity." Amtrak says supposed indicators of such activity should immediately be reported to trained law enforcement personnel. They include:

  • Unusual nervousness of traveler
  • Unusual calmness or straight ahead stare
  • Looking around while making telephone call(s)
  • Position among passengers disembarking (ahead of, or lagging behind passengers)
  • Carrying little or no luggage
  • Purchase of tickets in cash
  • Purchase tickets immediately prior to boarding

Not only does Amtrak ask its ticket agents to alert the cops to such dangerous activity as, say, a spontaneous romantic trip with your honey, Amtrak also urges its customers to report suspicious activity to Amtrak police themselves. In its "See Something, Say Something…Hopefully It's Nothing" campaign, customers are asked to report such activity as taking photos of equipment – including trains – and "loitering, staring, or watching employees and customers." Sorry, googly eyes.

While Amtrak certainly has an interest in keeping its passengers safe, it is using the same heavy-handed, dragnet approach that we've seen in many of the government's other counter-terrorism and drug trafficking prevention efforts. As we have seen with Suspicious Activity Reports and the TSA's SPOT program, reporting based on broad categories of "suspicious" behavior is problematic because it almost always results in racial and religious profiling, as well as the targeting of perfectly innocent activity. Most importantly, building mountains of irrelevant data is ultimately an ineffective law enforcement tactic. (See here and here).

The ACLU has received reports from individuals wrongfully searched and arrested on Amtrak trains, which is why we filed this FOIA request to access the underlying policies leading to such police practices. While we're particularly interested in how Amtrak is collecting, tracking, and sharing our data — including through new technologies — we have yet to receive information relevant to those questions. But we do know that Amtrak police has not reported a single instance of finding and catching a potential terrorist or serious threat as a result of its suspicious activity reports. Instead, it has filled its trophy case with victories like arresting a black woman because passengers felt she was speaking too loudly on the phone, arresting a black man because another passenger falsely stated he threatened her, and even arresting a photographer because he was taking pictures of a train for the annual Amtrak "Picture our Train" competition (update here).

We have reason to believe that Amtrak's policies also provide grounds for civil asset forfeiture, a process that effectively allows cops to engage in highway robbery, and often results in racial profiling. The documents we received include agreements between Amtrak and the Las Vegas Police Department, Reno Police Department, and Louisiana state police. The agreements not only officially enable a practice of confiscating money and property from passengers without due process, but also mandate "[e]quitable sharing of forfeited assets;" in other words, state agencies get a cut of assets seized by Amtrak police. Reports of asset forfeiture indicate that the police target those they associate with criminal behavior and drug trafficking – black and Latino men.

If Amtrak police want to help keep us safe, they should come up with smarter policies for detecting and addressing criminal activity. Vague and overbroad standards don't help anyone — passengers are at risk of harassment by police for lawful actions, and Amtrak makes finding the needle near impossible by vastly enlarging the size of the haystack. If you have been a victim of Amtrak police profiling or asset forfeiture, contact us. Hopefully, it's nothing.

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m_savage@email.com

Finally.
In 2009 my second and final trip on scamtrak was from Raton NM to ABQ NM. Besides the overflowing toilets (!) on the car a passenger died the night before and was still in the luggage section of train. Talk about annoyed train staff. Anyway, pulling into ABQ we were met by patrolling coproaches; upon exiting I was asked to let some pinhead search me and bookbag. Needless to say, I left without a search.
The first scamtrak trip was just as pleasant; again out of ABQ. Upon entry to bus I was given no choice to have bookbag searched; after departure passengers were lectured by the moron driver about what passengers weren't allowed to do or possess for at least 20 minutes.
In the future I'll rent a car, and then be subjected to same horse manure on the highway.

Anonymous

FOIA action Elkins v FAA, 1:14-CV-00476, FAA declares part of a declaration by FAA employee Patricia F. is untrue, throwing her credibility and name "under the bus", now declaring records denied under 7(A), new claim, and 7(E) are of "national security" . Statement made by US Attorney Douglas Malloy contradict FAA statements about Elkins being under investigation/ surveillance, the FAA knew plaintiff was under surveillance, DOJ denies. Government looses first round of summary judgment, non compliant "Vaughn Indexes"

Anonymous

I think since Polish students and pro animal activists were checked photo
ID on train from Chicago to New York, later deported and now have to starve in Denmark cleaning dishes as posted in Polish here:
http://www.faktychicago.com/wydarzenia/deportacja-z-pociagu,news,672.html and it is in world press in megaton strength no illegal immigrant ever stepped on board of the Amtrak train.
"Non-hiding" Americans on the other hand always prefer faster planes.

Anonymous

STOP BEING PARANOID people!

Mohawk742

More stupid from bureaucrats who are too damned lazy-minded to think.

Anonymous

Amtrak police engaging in civil asset forfeiture are in the terms of 42 USC 1983 "acting under color of law", and as such, they are subject to suit for treble damages in civil court if they screw up materially, and they can't hide behind their agency if they lose. It would be good to make certain that everybody who might be affected by this behavior realizes such a civil suit as possible, and how to determine whwn to file one

Anonymous

And people wonder why I'm paranoid.

Don A

Recently took my adult child to meet an Amtrak train at a nearby stop (flag stop, not a full station). There were several people with cameras set up to "film" the train which is a common sight (you can find many film clips on youtube). One even had a scanner he used to monitor conversations about the train. It sounds like I should have reported them as suspicious.

Anonymous

So how do we stop criminals from boarding Amtrak or other passenger trains ? Too many criminals have attacked and killed innocent people and train employees, how do you suggest we stop them ?

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