Amtrak Helps DEA Hunt Drug Couriers

Affiliate: ACLU of New Mexico
April 11, 2001 12:00 am

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ALBUQUERQUE, NM — Amtrak is providing federal drug police here with ticketing information about passengers — and Amtrak police get 10 percent of any cash seized from suspected drug couriers at the Downtown station, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

As part of what officials describe as a one-of-a-kind arrangement, the Journal reported, a computer with access to Amtrak’s ticketing information sits on a desk in the Drug Enforcement Administration’s local office.

It can provide drug agents with information such as passengers’ last names, where they’re coming from, where they’re headed, whether they paid for their tickets with cash or credit and when they bought their tickets.

A local DEA agent talked about the arrangement during pretrial interview in a court case last month.

“I met with Amtrak probably two or three times in the early ’90s to discuss use of the computer because I realized the computer was the key in catching [drug couriers],” agent Kevin Small said. “And our agreement is anything we seize off the train, they get 10 percent.”

Information obtained from Amtrak helps drug agents narrow down who they want to speak with — and therefore whose luggage could eventually be checked by a drug-sniffing dog — when the agents board the trains that roll into Albuquerque. That team of law officers includes an Amtrak police detective.

Steven Derr, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA’s Albuquerque office, said Tuesday he didn’t know offhand how many arrests the team has made at the Albuquerque train station or how much alleged drug money has been seized. But he said both numbers are “substantial.”

Critics say the practice could lead to targeting people based on their ethnicity or financial status.

And they question whether it violates the United States Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.

“This would disturb anybody — you buy a ticket, and the DEA is looking over your shoulder,” said Albuquerque defense attorney Randi McGinn. “It stinks. What they’re trying to do is get around the Fourth Amendment.”

Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, called the arrangement “an insidious alliance” between Amtrak and the DEA and said the ACLU is now pondering whether to take legal action.

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