Pubdate: Thu, 11 Aug 2016
Source: USA Today (US)
Copyright: 2016 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc
Author: Brad Heath
Bookmark: (Asset Forfeiture)


Suspicious Itineraries Pay Huge Dividends to Federal Drug Agency

USA TODAY identified 87 cases in recent years in which the Justice 
Department went to federal court to seize cash from travelers.

Federal drug agents regularly mine Americans' travel information to 
profile people who might be ferrying money for narcotics traffickers 
- - though they almost never use what they learn to make arrests or 
build criminal cases.

Instead, that targeting has helped the Drug Enforcement 
Administration seize a small fortune in cash.

DEA agents have profiled passengers on Amtrak trains and nearly every 
major U.S. airline, drawing on reports from a network of 
travel-industry informants that extends from ticket counters to back 
offices, a USA TODAY investigation has found. Agents assigned to 
airports and train stations singled out passengers for questioning or 
searches for reasons as seemingly benign as traveling one-way to 
California or having paid for a ticket in cash.

The DEA surveillance is separate from the vast and widely known 
anti-terrorism apparatus that now surrounds air travel, which is 
rarely used for routine law enforcement. It has been carried out 
largely without the airlines' knowledge.

It is a lucrative endeavor, and one that remains largely unknown 
outside the drug agency. DEA units assigned to patrol 15 of the 
nation's busiest airports seized more than $209 million in cash from 
at least 5,200 people over the past decade after concluding the money 
was linked to drug trafficking, according to Justice Department 
records. Most of the money was passed on to local police departments 
that lend officers to assist the drug agency.

"They count on this as part of the budget," said Louis Weiss, a 
former supervisor of the DEA group assigned to Hartsfield-Jackson 
Atlanta International Airport. "Basically, you've got to feed the monster."

In most cases, records show agents gave the suspected couriers a 
receipt for the cash - sometimes totaling $50,000 or more, stuffed 
into suitcases or socks - and sent them on their way without charging 
them with a crime.

The DEA would not comment on how it obtains records of Americans' 
domestic travel, or on what scale. But court records and interviews 
with agents, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because 
they are not permitted to discuss DEA operations, make clear that it 
is extensive. In one 2009 court filing, for example, Justice 
Department lawyers said agents took $44,010 from two people traveling 
on a train to Denver after picking them out during "a routine review 
of the computerized travel manifest for Amtrak."

USA TODAY identified 87 cases in recent years in which the Justice 
Department went to federal court to seize cash from travelers after 
agents said they had been tipped off to a suspicious itinerary. Those 
cases likely represent only a small fraction of the instances in 
which agents have stopped travelers or seized cash based on their 
travel patterns, because few such encounters ever make it to court.

Those cases nonetheless offer evidence of the program's sweep. 
Filings show agents were able to profile passengers on Amtrak and 
nearly every major U.S. airline, often without the companies' 
consent. "We won't release that information without a subpoena," 
American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein said.

By itself, a suspicious itinerary amounts to little more than a tip; 
it's not enough evidence to permit agents to detain passengers, 
search their bags or seize their cash. Instead, agents use it to 
approach travelers and ask if they would be willing to answer a few 
questions, a process that often ends with them either asking for 
permission to search the person's bags or having a dog sniff them for drugs.

Agents seized $25,000 from Christelle Tillerson's suitcase in 2014 as 
she waited to board a flight from Detroit to Chicago. The Justice 
Department said in a court filing that agents became interested in 
Tillerson after they "received information" that she was headed to 
Los Angeles on a one-way ticket.

Tillerson told the agents that her boyfriend had withdrawn the money 
from his U.S. Postal Service retirement account so that she could buy 
a truck, according to court records. Agents were suspicious; 
Tillerson was an ex-convict who had spent time in prison for driving 
a load of marijuana into the United States from Mexico. She seemed to 
have little money of her own. And a police dog smelled drugs on the cash.

Agents seized the money and let Tillerson go. Her lawyer, Cyril Hall, 
said she was never arrested, or even questioned about whether she 
could give agents information about traffickers.

A year and a half later - after she produced paperwork showing that 
much of the money had indeed come from her boyfriend's retirement 
fund - the Justice Department agreed to return the money, minus 
$4,000. A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Detroit, Gina 
Balaya, said prosecutors concluded that "a small percentage of the 
funds should be forfeited."

"It was outrageous. It's still outrageous," Hall said.

Federal law gives the government broad powers to seize cash and other 
assets if agents have evidence they are linked to crime. That 
process, commonly known as asset forfeiture, has come under fire from 
lawmakers in recent years after complaints that police were using the 
law to raise money rather than to protect the public or prevent crime.

"Going after someone's property has nothing to do with protecting 
them and it has everything to do with going after the money," said 
Renee Flaherty, a lawyer for the Institute for Justice, an advocacy 
group that has battled asset forfeiture cases.

To the DEA, cash seizures are one prong of a broader financial fight 
against gangs and Mexican cartels, which have reaped huge profits - 
usually in cash - from selling drugs in the U.S. Agents "employ 
strategies and methods that attack the financial infrastructure of 
these criminal organizations," spokesman Russ Baer said, including 
tracking couriers who transport the money.

Baer said agents receive information from employees at "airlines, bus 
terminals, car rental agencies, storage facilities, vehicle repair 
shops, or other businesses." He did not explain why so many courier 
suspects are released without charges.


The DEA came under fire for harvesting travel records two years ago, 
when Amtrak's inspector general revealed that agents had paid a 
secretary $854,460 over nearly two decades in exchange for passenger 
information. A later investigation by the Justice Department's 
inspector general found that the secretary initially looked up 
reservations only at agents' request, but quickly "began making 
queries on his own initiative," according to a report obtained under 
the Freedom of Information Act.

Five current and former agents said the DEA has cultivated a network 
of such informants. Some are paid a percentage if their tips lead to 
a significant seizure.

Court records show agents and informants flagged travelers for 
questioning based on whether they were traveling with one-way 
tickets, had paid in cash, had listed a non-working phone number on 
the reservation or had checked luggage. They also appeared to pay 
particular attention to people headed to cities such as Los Angeles 
(which prosecutors described as "a well-known source city for 
marijuana and other types of narcotics"), Fresno ("known for large 
quantities of outdoor grown marijuana") and other California cities.

Exactly how often agents contact people based on their travel records 
is impossible to determine. Few cash seizures are challenged in 
court; those that aren't leave no public record.

And the Justice Department's Inspector General has complained that 
the DEA's airport units often did not track the instances in which 
they question someone but did not make an arrest or seizure.

What the drug agency could not do was access the sea of data the 
government collects from airlines to spot potential terrorists. 
Airlines must provide basic information about all of their passengers 
to the Department of Homeland Security three days before a flight so 
that they can be checked against terrorist watch lists. That system 
is so tightly focused on detecting potential terrorists that the 
government typically will not use it even to spot wanted fugitives.

Nor were agents able to get information from the airlines. "They 
really did not want to be associated with subjecting their passengers 
to government scrutiny because of the privacy issues," Weiss, the 
former DEA supervisor, said. "They discouraged their employees from 
assisting us."


Drug agents were on the lookout for Nina Haywood when she stepped off 
an American Airlines flight at John Wayne Airport in the Los Angeles 
suburbs two years ago.

They knew she was returning from a trip to Tulsa that had lasted less 
than 12 hours, according to court records. They knew she had checked 
a suitcase, and they had a drug dog sniff it as baggage handlers 
unloaded it from the airplane. A detective assigned to a DEA task 
force approached her while she was waiting at the baggage claim.

Haywood's answers to their questions gave agents still more reason to 
be suspicious. When they asked why she had been in Tulsa, Haywood 
replied that she had been visiting her aunt in the hospital, but 
couldn't remember the aunt's last name. When they asked whether she 
had packed her bag, Haywood answered that a different aunt had packed 
it for her, but she couldn't remember that aunt's name, either. They 
found $41,471 stuffed in her suitcase, in envelopes inside a toiletry 
bag and a pair of white tube socks, according to court records.

Haywood also gave agents permission to search her cellphone. On it, 
the Justice Department said, they found a text message from an 
acquaintance asking why she was going to Tulsa.

"Money baby money!!!!" she answered.

Haywood was never charged. She declined to comment.

A DEA group assigned to Los Angeles' airports made more than 1,600 
cash seizures over the past decade, totaling more than $52 million, 
according to records the Justice Department uses to track asset 
seizures. Only one of the Los Angeles seizure records included an 
indication that it was related to a criminal indictment.
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