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Bus and train passengers warned of police tactics

On behalf of Dolan + Zimmerman LLP October 18, 2019

An online investigative news outlet recently published a report that may be of interest, or perhaps useful or alarming, to anyone traveling to or from Colorado by bus or train. The publication describes itself as “dedicated to holding the powerful accountable.”

According to the article, federal law enforcement agencies commonly patrol Amtrak and Greyhound for passengers carrying illegal drugs. The agents take the opportunity presented by trains and buses to make arrests and seizures. Their tactics are disturbing to some civil liberties advocates even when legal, and they sometimes appear to be illegal, according to The Intercept.

Searches said to be dubiously legal

As agents patrol the trains at stops, examining luggage compartments and approaching passengers, they commonly use a tactic they call “cold consent encounter.” Agents approach passengers based on what the publication calls “thin evidence they are drug couriers” and tell them they’ll now be searched.

The Constitution’s Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches, but passengers almost always allow themselves to be searched, according to officers. As The Intercept points out, searches are legal if passengers know they have a right to refuse but submit to a search anyway. Without consent to search, agents need either a warrant or probable cause, such as a sign from a drug-sniffing dog.

The American Civil Liberties Union has criticized the tactic as barely consensual and called the cooperation between Amtrak and the Drug Enforcement Administration an “insidious alliance.”

Passenger lists provided to agents, report claims

The Intercept bases some of its claims on testimony from several lawsuits from criminal defense attorneys arising from enforcement tactics on mass transit.

One officer testified to boarding trains with passenger lists routinely provided in advance, enabling him to target people he considered to be good candidates for searches. Amtrak commented that it cooperates fully with federal authorities.

However, the publication claims the head of security for Greyhound North America at one point tried to respectfully rescind DEA’s access to its Albuquerque station.

Transit stops seen as high-yielding targets

Amtrak has security of its own, but they don’t usually search bags. The article suggests law enforcement sees this as an appealing feature of the trains, allowing for high-yield busts.