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Are Amtrak Passenger Searches By DEA Agents Legal?

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There have been many cases of controversial searches and seizures in Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, which is one of the longest railways in the United States, located between Chicago and Los Angeles. The cases started with that of Richard Mckenzie back in 2008 when Mckenzie boarded Southwest Chief from Flagstaff, Arizona.

The nature of these seizures has been called into question, as reports have shown that most of these searches are based on hunches rather than evidence. It is not clear whether anyone who has been searched or had property under suspicious circumstances has acquired legal representation for civil asset forfeiture.

In Mckenzie’s case, the search turned out to be warranted. At the time, he was carrying approximately 3.5 kilograms of cocaine inside his bag. DEA Special Agent Mark Hyland and local DEA Officer Stephen Surprenant de Garcia came to Mckenzie’s cabin at about 12:30 PM on July 7, 2008. They asked to search his bag, gaining Mckenzie’s consent. Mckenzie’s Louis Vuitton contained what the agents deemed was an unusually heavy cereal box. This was then revealed to be hidden cocaine, sources say.

According to DEA reports, DEA agents between Chicago and Amtrak especially are always on the lookout for what they term ‘drug proceed couriers.’ Similar to Mckenzie’s case, there have been several incidents where narcotics have been found in luggage. In fact, in January of this year, DEA Special Agent Ryan Marriott has said, “Los Angeles is a known source city for illegal narcotics.” This was after he found a man trying to smuggle crystal meth in Southwest Chief, near Kansas City. He stated that “members of our squad have made numerous narcotic arrests and seizures from this train route.”

While it is legal to perform to search people without probable cause or a warrant, it is also legal for people to decline to submit to the search. Policemen patrolling these areas are employing a technique called ‘cold consent encounter.’ A cold consent encounter is exactly what it sounds like; it involves approaching people based on thin evidence and low-key forcing them into a search and seizure.

DEA agents use cold consent encounters as a legal loophole to get passed citizen’s Fourth Amendment Rights. The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches (without probable cause.)

According to ACLU New Mexico Executive Director Peter Simonson, most passengers do not know about their Fourth Amendment right to decline searches, nor are they made aware of the fact by DEA agents performing the search and seizure. 

Simonson called this troubling because research shows that police and other officials, who act on hunches rather than reasonable suspicions and evidence, are more prone to make decisions based on preconceived prejudices and bias, including racial bias. 

Simonson critiqued the argument that cold consent encounters make it easier for officials to find drug couriers. He said that “law enforcement’s job would be much, much easier if they didn’t have to comport with any constitutional restrictions and could simply arrest people at will.”

Cases of controversial searches and seizures have been prevalent throughout the country, including Pennsylvania

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of these controversial searches, you should hire a lawyer. Contact us today to take the first step towards the best possible legal outcome for you.

31.12.19 DEA Agents Ambush Amtrak Passengers With Controversial Searches and Seizures.pdf