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Drug-Courier Profiles: Or, Why We Are All Guilty

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Police using drug-courier profiles are bringing the best of Third World authoritarianism to American airports and highways – with narcs constantly waiting to leap out and shake down any passenger or driver they think looks suspicious. And the definition of “suspicious” includes almost anyone over the age of four.

The next time that you make a phone call after getting off a flight, or look a little rattled after a ten-bump landing, or travel to Detroit, beware! You are exhibiting the traits of a drug courier and should expect to be accosted and forcibly searched by government agents.

Drug-courier profiles – “an informally compiled abstract of characteristics thought typical of persons carrying illicit drugs” – have proven to be the “philosopher’s stone” that allows police to stop and search anyone they please – or anyone who displeases them. This is a gross violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which the Founding Fathers wrote precisely to prevent government agents from having tyrannical power over private citizens.

Federal prosecutors argue that the traits in the drug-courier profile automatically create a reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct – and thus are a justification to stop and search private citizens. But government agents consider almost everything and almost everyone to be suspicious:

  • Some profiles assert that the first person off the plane is a likely drug suspect. Others insist that the last person off is the likely drug dealer, and still others claim that people who try to blend into the middle are the guilty ones.
  • In federal court cases, drug-courier profiles have supposedly justified government agents’ accosting plane passengers who had nonstop flights – and those who changed planes; persons traveling alone – and persons traveling with a companion; people who appeared nervous – and people who appeared too calm.
  • Among the telltale signs of the courier, says one widely used DEA courier profile are “the almost exclusive use of public transportation, particularly taxicabs, in departing from the airport” and “immediately making a telephone call after deplaning.” Government agents who use such a courier profile have an excuse to stop and search almost anyone they choose.
  • People are also routinely stopped if they are flying to or from cities considered by the DEA to be narcotics-source cities – such as Detroit or Miami. During a federal court trial, federal prosecutors claimed that a “source city” for drug traffic was “virtually any city with a major airport.” (The judge noted in his decision that laughter erupted in the courtroom after the prosecutors’ assertion.)

Other “proofs” used by police to detect drug couriers have included, as lawyer Nancy Hollander has noted, “two men in a car; driving across country; map on the seat showing different cities marked in different states; driving too cautiously; driving at 3 a.m.; looking directly into the eyes of a police officer; not looking directly into the eyes of a police officer; having Kentucky Fried Chicken on the car seat.” Hollander notes, “The DEA trains police officers to stop as many cars as possible for traffic violations and, while the person is stopped, to ask as many questions as possible.”

Federal agents sometimes claim that their profiles are nearly infallible. This will come as news to the hundreds of thousands of innocent people who have been wrongfully searched by government officials. One DEA spokesman declared that government agents “can spot a drug dealer the way a woman can spot a deal at the supermarket.” But at the Buffalo airport in 1989, federal agents detained 600 individuals as suspected drug couriers – and 590 were innocent.

Airport drug-courier profiles disproportionately target blacks and Hispanics. Even superstars can fall victim to the profiles. Baseball Hall of Famer Joe Morgan was making a phone call after getting off a flight from Oakland and waiting for a flight to Tucson at the Los Angeles International Airport. A Los Angeles policeman approached him, demanded to see identification, and then, according to Morgan, grabbed him from behind, shoved him to the floor, and handcuffed him. Morgan stated that the policeman told him that he was an “authority figure” and that he would teach Morgan “what authority was all about.”

When a spectator told the policeman that Morgan was a “great baseball player,” the policeman warned the bystander not to interfere. Morgan was dragged to a small nursery nearby for interrogation; police released him after realizing their mistake. The Los Angeles police later sought to justify the arrest by saying that they were searching for an accomplice of a suspected drug courier they had just collared (who was later found to have no drugs on him). William Barnes, Morgan’s attorney, later observed, “There’s no doubt in our mind that the only reason they stopped Joe Morgan was because he is black and he was the first black who happened to come by.”

Since much of the nation’s narcotics supply is moved by automobiles, police have also invented numerous drug-courier profiles for drivers.

  • Drug-courier profiles in many states include automobile drivers who exceed the speed limit, even though a 1991 Federal Highway Administration survey found that more than half of drivers on surveyed roads exceeded posted speed limits.
  • New Mexico state police invented a drug-courier profile to justify stopping drivers who showed “scrupulous obedience to traffic laws.”
  • The Georgia state police profile instructed state troopers to be wary of “cars carrying a box of tissues, which signals cocaine use, and cars carrying empty McDonald’s cartons or pillows and blankets in the back seat, which may signal drug runners in a hurry,” as one law journal article noted.
  • One Florida trial judge observed of the Florida police’s courier profile: “When you boil the profile down to its essentials, it covers just about every rental automobile or private automobile with out-of-state license plates traveling north on the turnpike or I-95.”

Some police forces use legal technicalities to selectively stop and search cars. The Tinicum, Pennsylvania, police department from 1989 to 1992 routinely stopped blacks and Hispanics driving through or near the town on the pretext of a motor vehicle code provision that prohibits drivers from having rabbits’ feet, dice, or air fresheners hanging on the rear-view mirror, and even stopped cars because they had tinted windows. They then searched the automobiles for drugs and contraband. Four black women returning from a church service asserted that the police officer who searched them told them they were stopped because they were young, black, and driving “a nice car.”

In a six-month period, 96 percent of the cars stopped by one Tinicum police officer were driven by blacks. The Delaware County, Pennsylvania, district attorney justified the racial targeting: “Everybody knows that the drug trade in Chester, Philadelphia, and Wilmington is controlled by blacks. It’s a truism.” In October 1994, the township settled a lawsuit by paying $220,000 to 40 black and Hispanic drivers who had been illegally searched as a result of the drug courier profiles.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly rubber-stamped the use of drug-courier profiles. The justices themselves, who frequently are escorted by U.S. marshals when they travel, do not need to worry about being subjected to unreasonable searches.

According to the DEA, federal, state, and local police manage to intercept barely 10 percent of the illicit drugs entering this country. Drug laws have clearly failed to stop people from using drugs – and they have clearly allowed police to greatly increase their arbitrary power over the citizenry. Is all this worthwhile?

Unrestricted power to search implies unlimited subjugation to government officials. Drug-courier profiles symbolize contemporary America’s refusal to limit government or protect the individual.

Americans must draw the line and refuse to consent to illegal searches. Judges must stand up for the rights of American citizens against police abuses. This is what our forefathers fought for and died for in 1776, and we should honor their sacrifice. The Constitution says that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated….” The surest way to end abusive drug-courier profiles is to repeal drug laws. When police no longer have a pretext to search every citizen, they will have far fewer pretexts to hassle the people they supposedly serve.

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    James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.