The next time you ride Amtrak, you may encounter an agent from the Drug Enforcement Administration asking you to allow a search of your belongings. Don’t consent — especially if you have something to hide.
The mere fact that an officer has requested a search you may make you want to consent. As we’ve discussed before, it’s psychologically and socially challenging to turn down a cop. Indeed, 90% of all drivers agree when asked to allow a search of their vehicles — even when they are carrying evidence of criminal activity.
Law enforcement is generally not violating the constitution when they ask for your consent. If you agree, however, there are important legal ramifications.
The proposed search might not have been constitutional without your consent. In other words, the officer might not have probable cause to believe you are committing a crime. If they search without probable cause, any evidence they discover could be ruled inadmissible. That could mean a dismissal of any charges. If they get your consent, however, the search is almost always considered legal.
The Intercept examines how the DEA finds drug couriers
According to the independent investigative journal The Intercept, it’s quite common for drug couriers to use Amtrak or interstate buses to deliver drugs. Therefore, at any given time, a certain percentage of passengers may well be carrying drugs or large sums of cash.
To find these people, the DEA engages in a variety of tactics, but one of the most important is consent searches. They simply step onto the train at a way station and start asking people to let them search.
When they find people carrying substantial amounts of cash, they typically seize it. This may be legal. Under the law of civil forfeiture, money or property that police suspect of being involved in, or the proceeds of, crime can be seized. This can happen even if they don’t charge the owner with a crime. The owner then has to prove the cash or assets are “innocent” of criminal activity. If they can’t prove that, the agency gets to keep the money.
If you travel by Amtrak or another public carrier, you should know that officers could come aboard and ask for a search of your belongings. You are generally under no obligation to allow this. If you have anything with you that you don’t want the government to see — legal or illegal — you need to steel your nerves and refuse your consent.
The agents may search anyway, but at least you won’t have ensured the search is considered legal. If you have been searched and subsequently charged with a crime, you should immediately contact your criminal defense lawyer.