How the DEA Harasses Amtrak Passengers

A mathematician describes how his rights were apparently violated during a trip to Washington, D.C.

Joshua Lott / Reuters

Earlier this year, Aaron Heuser of Eugene, Oregon, had to travel to Washington, D.C. The trip had two purposes: The 37-year-old mathematician was officially leaving his job at National Institutes of Health and starting a new position at a private firm. Since he is terrified of flying he booked himself a sleeper car on Amtrak. Upon reaching Reno, Nevada, there was an unexpected knock at his door. “There was a DEA badge on the window,” he said. “Having a good reason to be making this trip and being a law abiding citizen, I opened the door and politely asked if there was a problem. The officer asked if I was Aaron Heuser, and then asked to see my ticket. He then told me that there were many red flags on my trip, mainly that I had a sleeper car, was traveling alone, and did not check my luggage.”

A sleeper car is a main Amtrak product! Plenty of people travel alone! Why would anyone with a whole sleeper-car compartment to themselves go through the hassle of checking luggage?

Yet the harassment isn’t surprising.

For decades, law enforcement has tried to intercept drug couriers on Amtrak trains. These efforts have utterly failed to stop the easy availability of marijuana, cocaine, and other narcotics. Meanwhile they’ve violated the rights of countless Americans. Earlier this week, I highlighted the story of Joseph Rivers, a 22-year old black man who left his hometown in hopes of becoming a music-video producer. En route to L.A., the DEA boarded his Amtrak and seized his life savings, $16,000 in cash, even though there was apparently no evidence he’d committed a crime or possessed any drugs.

After reading my article Heuser contacted me to share his story.

The officer asked him why he was traveling, and at first seemed satisfied by his explanation. But he quickly changed his tone, began acting like he knew Heuser was guilty, and asked to search his room. Since Heuser had nothing to hide and felt intimidated a part of him wanted to comply. But as a fan of the ACLU and the son of hippie parents, he instead decided to assert his right to be free from unreasonable searches.

The DEA agent pressed the matter.

“After that he asked if he could bring a dog into my room to check out the bags, to which I again said ‘no,’” said Heuser, who hasn’t passed the bar but knows a little bit about Fourth Amendment law. “Finally he told me that he was going to bring a dog, walk it by my room, and that if alerted, my room would be searched. He told me that I could not argue this and that I was not allowed to be present for the search. His reasoning for violating my right to be present was that the dog might bite me.”

Forced to leave his room, he walked toward the dining car. En route another DEA agent tried to get him to step off the train where other law-enforcement officers were gathered. Heuser worried that if he got off the train they might not allow him back on before it left. “I asked if I was under arrest, and if I were free to go, then started walking to the dining car,” Heuser said. “The officer followed me, telling me that they know I am transporting drugs, and if I have any for personal use, they do not care, and it would be easier if I just told them. I said that was nice to know, then kept walking.”

Then a DEA agent lied in an attempt to gain permission to search the room.

“He told me that his partner could tell someone was hiding in my bathroom and wanted to check if anyone was in there,” Heuser recalls. “I told them that no police are allowed to enter, but if the conductor wants to enter and let them know that there is no one in the bathroom, it would be okay.” Minutes later, while Heuser was on his way back to his room, a DEA agent looked him in the eye and said, "You Oregonians may think that the green leafy stuff is harmless, but I know from my job that it kills people every day."

Finally Heuser stepped back into his room.

“I found my backpack moved and open, and my wallet, which was set down on the room table, had $60 missing,” he said. “I told one of the dining car attendants that I felt Amtrak and the DEA violated my rights. She told me that Amtrak is forced to give passenger info to Feds, that the DEA comes on every trip, usually arresting someone in the sleeping car or taking all their money. When I asked for her name in case I needed it later she refused and told me Amtrak would fire her.”

One needn’t rely on her hearsay.

Last year, the Associated Press reported that the DEA “paid an Amtrak secretary $854,460 over nearly 20 years to obtain confidential information about train passengers, which the DEA could have lawfully obtained for free through a law enforcement network.” (This was reportedly done so that the DEA could avoid sharing seized assets with Amtrak police, which hints at how lucrative such seizures are.)

Around the same time, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request after getting reports about Amtrak passengers having their rights violated. “This type of targeting constitutes a significant invasion of personal privacy,” an attorney wrote in the accompanying memo. “It suggests that Amtrak is sharing the travel-related data of thousands of its passengers who have engaged in no wrongdoing.”

Later an ACLU staffer reported on the results of the request. Amtrak employees are instructed to report conduct "indicative of criminal activity" to law enforcement.

Among them:

  • 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

So to avoid getting hassled by the state, don’t act nervous, but don’t act too calm either. Don’t stare straight ahead unless you’re on the telephone, in which case don’t look around. And disembark right amidst all the other passengers with lots of luggage.

In a country in which police officers shoot and kill many more unarmed people than their analogues overseas, having the DEA hassle you and cost you $60 isn’t the biggest of law-enforcement abuses. It is, nevertheless, worth remembering that these sorts of incidents happen, because unlike misconduct that results in death or serious injury, relatively modest violations of rights like this often go unreported. Heuser didn’t complain to the DEA. “I’ve had my friends complain to the police before,” he explained, “and they basically said, you better watch yourself pal.”

But the effects of the incident are still with him.

“It’s terrifying,” he said. “Especially with all the news stories, you know that they can kill you if they want to. I know that’s not likely for me but can’t help but think about it.” He now looks at law enforcement differently. “I’d always lived under the false impression that they don’t profile people like me,” he explained. “I never thought that was a good thing. But I had the impression that as a white, middle-aged professional, I’m not getting profiled. Now I’m a little bit more afraid of them. Maybe more white, middle-aged professionals should experience this if that’s what it takes to get this taken care of. I’m definitely not in a place where I appreciate them.”

He’s also spent time online trying to figure out how many other Amtrak customers have had their patronage rewarded by unpleasant encounters with troops in the drug war.

Here’s another example from a train forum:

I've just spent the last hour being interrogated by the Nebraska State Police who boarded our train, the California Zephyr, at 4AM. I am in a sleeper (Car 0632, room 14) and awoke to a non-uniformed individual banging on my door, again at 4AM.

I was interrogated as to where I had boarded, where I was going, what I was doing, and had my room and my luggage searched as was the experience of all the other sleeping car occupants in my car. When we asked for identification from the officers (who were not uniformed) we were told a) they had jurisdiction and b) they would HAND WRITE individual cards. My card reads "Richard A. Lutter", Investigator, Investigative Services Division, Nebraska State Patrol. Badge #253.

When my fellow sleeping car riders asked why they were on the train, they said "To Search For Contraband" and that was the excuse they used to rummage through our rooms and our luggage. The train's conductor was also present and for reasons I do not understand did not throw them off the train.

This is not America.

Some people really do try to smuggle drugs by train. Last year, for example, the DEA caught a young man concealing cocaine in a fake cast. How many innocent Americans were harassed to make that cast-sized dent in the national cocaine supply? No one knows. But if you’ve been bothered by police while not smuggling drugs aboard an Amtrak train you’re encouraged to email with your story.