Carrying cash? You must be a crook!

Feds reward carriers who tip them off about cash-heavy customers

Got a hot tip on a racehorse? Sell all your old Mad magazines and have a sudden urge to zip down to New Orleans for a weekend of jazz and gambling? Before you stuff your pockets with Franklins and rush to the train station or airport, you'd better think twice — the money you save might be your own.

For years, travelers have been subject to the scrutiny of police and customs officers at train stations and airports. But disclosures of a quiet relationship between Amtrak and the federal Drug Enforcement Agency to share the proceeds of cash seized from travelers have alarmed civil libertarians and outraged some defense attorneys.

As it turns out, similar profit-making arrangements have long been in place with many of the nation's air carriers, according to Sherry Strange, assistant special agent-in-charge at Atlanta's DEA office. In fact, she says, in addition to a "very successful" relationship with Amtrak over the years (including some seizures and arrests at Amtrak's Brookwood Station downtown), it's at Hartsfield International Airport where an observant ticket agent or bag-handler can really rack up some extra bucks for his employer by keeping an eye open.

"We've had several good ones recently," Strange says. "There was a plane charter that came through Hartsfield with 49 kilos of cocaine and three arrests, and a number of seizures at the international terminal; customs handled most of those ... and a domestic flight where over $600,000 was seized about two months ago."

As with Amtrak, she says the 10 percent payoff for such tips is generally the rule, "but it's not set in stone." It's those cash seizures — and the bounties paid to the tipsters — that worry some critics.

"It's an inherent conflict of interest," says Jonesboro attorney Lee Sexton. "What happens is that all the gate agents and ticket agents have a profile they use ... you pay for your ticket in cash, and you just stay one day, and you have little luggage, then that ticket agent or whatever will call DEA and say, 'Here, I've got a suspect for you.' "

Sexton says one of his clients — the brother of a prominent state lawmaker — was detained after paying cash for a ticket to Florida for a trip to the dog races. When agents found $30,000 in cash, Sexton says, they took it.

Such occasions offer a glimpse into the workings of federal forfeiture laws, which allow police to seize cash and property and then force the owner to go to court and prove it is not the proceeds of crime — a bizarre reversal of American jurisprudence.

In the Amtrak case, a Vietnamese man paid cash for a one-way ticket from California to Boston. When a DEA computer linked to Amtrak's New Mexico office flagged the passenger, agents boarded the train and asked to search his belongings. They didn't find any drugs, but they found $149,000, which the man said were gambling winnings. In fighting to get his money back, the man's lawyer uncovered the arrangement by which Amtrak is entitled to 10 percent, unless his lawyer wins back the money — minus legal fees, of course.

And in April, according to a California judicial reform organization, Amtrak passenger Jennifer Leigh Ames was relieved of $640,000 after refusing to allow police to search her bags.

"Believe me, we have a lot of people who are thankful that we do that," says Amtrak spokesman Kevin Johnson. "Because people who are involved in illicit drug activity usually have guns with them and other bad things."

The DEA's Strange says these profit-sharing arrangements go back to 1984, when Congress passed laws allowing police wide latitude in seizing personal property and cash. Amtrak officials say they have no idea how much has been collected over the years.

Amtrak officials also have dismissed concerns that such practices might violate U.S. privacy laws, which prohibit government agencies from sharing identifying data without going through proper procedures. Amtrak maintains that it was created by Congress as a private corporation and is thus immune to Privacy Act standards.

"When you buy an Amtrak ticket, you provide your name, a method of payment and a contact [telephone] number," says Amtrak spokeswoman Lynn Bowersox. "That's the only information that we would have to provide any law enforcement agency."

According to Strange, several criteria — which she declines to reveal — are used by would-be profilers to target passengers for scrutiny. And, she says, while the past year or so has been quiet at Brookwood, rail carrier tip-offs have led to hundreds of seizures over the years. Questions as to how much money has been seized from Amtrak, forwarded to DEA's Washington, D.C., headquarters, remain "under review" by the agency, as do queries about air carrier profits, including those for Atlanta-based Delta.

Robert Tsai at the Georgia affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union says the incidents raise two troubling issues.

"I'm aware of some complaints that the DEA and Amtrak may have been engaged in racial profiling, so we're obviously interested in that," Tsai says. But also, he says, paying a company to forward private information from unsuspecting customers to a police agency may raise Constitutional issues.

"The DEA's not shielded from the Constitution just because some private company's doing the work for them," he says.

Perhaps understandably, publicity-conscious airlines prefer not to highlight such arrangements. Delta spokesman Russ Williams initially said he knew nothing of any profit-sharing deal with DEA, but said he'd look into the matter. Subsequent efforts to reach him for comment have proved futile.

Strange also declines to name individual airlines. "The airlines are very sensitive about naming them, because of liability issues. And they don't want their employees working for us and for them at the same time, and so we try to protect their identities."

DEA and other law enforcement agencies say forfeiture is a key component in their fight against drug trade, and point to mid-boggling figures — DEA seized more than $276 million in 1999 alone.

But Sexton says paying off airlines — or their employees — for tips on passengers is not only an invitation for abuse, but also an invasion of privacy.

In fact, says Strange, concerns about liability for acting as surrogate cops may be putting the brakes on their profit-sharing activities. Amtrak reportedly will begin notifying passengers that their information may be shared with police.

And airlines also are getting more careful, she says, "because there are some pretty heavy liability issues involved." Delta, for instance, "now has a policy of asking their employees not to cooperate with us," she says, referring any further questions to Delta.

Meanwhile, there's always the bus. While DEA has been trying to work out a deal with Greyhound, says Agent Strange, nothing has been set up yet. And it's not likely to be, says Greyhound spokeswoman Jamille Bradfield.

"The majority of our tickets are bought with cash, we don't require any ID, and most of our passengers buy one-way tickets less than two hours prior to departure ... so most of them would fit the profile."