Amtrak Passengers Share More Stories of Harassment

The common theme is the harassment of people without probable cause to think that they are doing anything illegal.

Mike Blake / Reuters

Two recent articles about the Drug Enforcement Administration harassing Amtrak passengers have elicited like responses from a number of Atlantic readers. “Hey,” they’ve more or less written, “I’ve been harassed aboard Amtrak, too!”

For those who missed the earlier stories:

The DEA is mentioned again in what follows, though other stories concern different law-enforcement organizations. The common theme is the harassment of innocent people without probable cause to think that they are doing anything illegal. As Brian Doherty noted at Reason, the gendarme bothering innocent travelers on trains was a stock trope of movies and books about malign European regimes. And now it is a regular feature of train travel in the United States of America.

An incident of harassment weighed on one reader for many years:

I am still very disturbed by an event much like yours that happened more than 2 decades ago. I still feel so violated, and was approached exactly the same way as others in your story. I had a sleeper car as I was going from Austin to Los Angeles. Mine happened in Arizona (don't remember exactly where), but I was finally told (when I tried to repeatedly ask why I was being harassed) that I "matched a description" of a drug dealer. I was then a 30-something female, traveling alone, with luggage I had in my room because I had a room (duh). I was told that if I didn't cooperate and let them search me, they would arrest me and take me off the train. I am still disgusted at myself that I let them.

Another reader had cash taken:

I quit using Amtrak due to a 4 a.m. search and robbery of $300 in cash (thank god for travelers checks) by cops in Buffalo. Good luck with your story. It is nice to see the rest of the country finally getting it. There has been a police state, a profit-driven one, rising in this country  due to drugs prohibition.

This next reader was told that he raised suspicion as the result of a characteristic I share:

While traveling on Amtrak from Chicago to Toronto the train was boarded by U.S. Customs agents who proceeded to take me and my luggage off of the train to a small shed where everything was searched. The train waited during this time. I was the only one taken off the train. I had been riding with the rest of the economy passengers and not in a sleeper car. After a 15 minute search, I was told to go back on the train. I then stated that I thought it was unfair that I had been singled out.

The agents told me it was because I was from California!

Another reader was questioned in Nevada:

I just read your article about the DEA harassing people on Amtrak. Here is my story: I took the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco in April 2014. Shortly after departing Reno a man with a badge identified himself as with the DEA. He asked to see my ticket, where I was headed and why. He asked where my bags were and I told him I had one with me and two more on the lower level (I was in an upper level coach seat). He asked to search my backpack and I consented.

He did not care at all about my other bags.

For most of the 52 hour train ride those bags were unattended and out of sight, but largely available to all the passengers. Even if he searched and found a moderate amount of drugs in my bags, how does he prove they're mine? This may be why he was unconcerned. I did not see him ask questions of anyone else in my car. I was a young (30) white male traveling alone.

This next Amtrak passenger was bothered by conductors:

I use Amtrak as often as I can. When I read your article I was shocked because I went through a series of incidents. My job used to be as a paid political operative. Basically, I beat Republicans for a living. I would always try to go by Sleeper Car because your meals are included and the bathroom facilities are much better. Plus the quiet calmed my nerves.

When I moved home to Arkansas from West Virginia in 2000 and again in 2005 from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Little Rock, Arkansas, I had similar interrogation scenes. Why was I travelling with so many bags unchecked, etc. Well, I am moving home … hello. When you are a staffer it’s more than clothes. You live on site. Because of fundraising, campaigns sometimes don't pay you till a month in. When you win you are often paid in cash.  I had snooping conductors wanting to know what was in my boxes and bags. I showed them because honestly I had nothing to hide, but I felt intimidated.

This last reader was once inconvenienced for an hour while the DEA searched her Amtrak train. And then, on a separate occasion, she witnessed the border patrol disturbing the sleep on Amtrak customers on a train that stayed within the United States:

Travelling westbound on Lake Shore Limited in 2012, I recall being woken up by either Border Patrol or a State Trooper and asked for ID in Syracuse, N.Y. around 1 AM.  (The Lake Shore Limited does not cross international borders.) The story was this—the law enforcement agent (who was very polite) woke everyone up gently, one at a time, and asked if they were U.S. citizens.  Almost everyone said yes, and those who said yes were left alone.  I said no (I am not a U.S. citizen) and
then was asked for ID.  As it happened, I did not actually have any ID on me, except for a local government employee ID issued by a New York State authority. (Since I was not crossing international boundaries, I did not carry my passport nor my USCIS Permanent Resident Card—and do not routinely carry my driver's licence unless I am driving.) 

I think, technically, I was supposed to carry some form of government issued ID while travelling onboard Amtrak but my government-issued employee ID had served as an acceptable form of ID for that purpose. After a little dialogue, I think the agent decided I was not suspicious and simply moved along.  I can't honestly say I felt intimidated but I also recognize that it could have gone down very differently for someone who is not used to dealing with such situations, or someone having a different profile—or indeed someone who legitimately forgot their ID at home.

Although I have far more readers on the Acela corridor than anywhere else on the Amtrak system, and although that corridor serves the most passengers by a wide margin, I have yet to receive a story of anyone being harassed by the DEA on that route. Maybe that’s a coincidence. Maybe there just aren’t many drugs flowing in and out of Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C. Or maybe the DEA knows that if it tried such tactics on the power elites of those cities it’d be reined in.