On (heavily subsidized and losing money regardless) Amtrak, DEA agents are conducting searches, seemingly-but-not-really at random. Excerpt:
Cops patrolling train stations are typically using a tactic that law enforcement calls the “cold consent encounter,” so named because they approach people cold, on thin evidence they are drug couriers, and passengers consent to the searches, at least according to the officers’ versions of events.
It’s a legal loophole of sorts, commonly used by DEA agents working mass transit to get around the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects people from unreasonable searches. (Travelers can’t decline a search once a drug dog makes a positive hit, however.)
The American Civil Liberties Union has described cold consent encounters as “definitely cold, not so consensual.” And the ACLU of New Mexico criticized Amtrak in particular for its “insidious alliance” with the DEA, after some information about the DEA’s monitoring of train travelers came out in a drug trafficking trial in 2001.
ACLU New Mexico Executive Director Peter Simonson said that travelers who are approached on the train or other mass transit often don’t know that they have the right to refuse police searches. Especially troubling to him is research showing that police, when acting on hunches rather than hard evidence, are more likely to let subconscious racial bias creep into their work.
I don’t often side with the ACLU, but they’re right in this case. In part because of the utter failure of our education system to teach Civics, including such things as the Fourth Amendment, most travelers don’t realize that they have the option to say “no” when asked by a badge-bearing Fed if he can look in their luggage.
Of course, these days we put up with all sorts of invasions of our privacy. If you go through security at an airport, you are effectively giving consent to have TSA agents paw through your luggage – and maybe your person. But these Amtrak riders seem all too willing to meekly agree to searches.
I could tell you a story about when I was seventeen, and drove to a town in a neighboring county on a Saturday night to see if Howard County girls were any prettier than Allamakee and Winneshiek County girls. (I didn’t notice much difference.)
A local cop, seeing a kid and a car he didn’t recognize, pulled me over on the pretext that the fog lamps on my car may have been too close to the ground and he wanted to measure them. When that was done, and when he not-too-subtly played his flashlight beam around the inside of my car, he asked if he could look in the trunk.
“No,” I told him.
“Why not?” the cop asked.
“Because I don’t have to let you,” I replied.
Even then, in the late Seventies, I don’t think he expected that answer from a teenage boy. But I maintain to this day it was the right answer. It’s too bad more of these Amtrak riders don’t realize that.