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Amtrak snitches on riders for profits

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 24, 2001

Amtrak, the financially struggling national passenger rail system, has found a new way to generate revenue: by snitching.

In return for sharing its passenger manifest with the Drug Enforcement Administration, Amtrak gets a bounty of 10 percent of any seizures made from its trains. DEA agents use the information provided by the railroad to determine which passengers fit a "drug courier profile." Riders unlucky enough to have paid for their tickets with cash or purchased tickets at the last minute are questioned by federal agents who board the train at the Albuquerque, N.M., stop. If one of these travelers is carrying a substantial amount of cash, DEA agents confiscate it as a drug asset and Amtrak takes 10 percent off the top.

It's a new twist on the Great Train Robbery.

On its Web site, Amtrak presents pictures of happy, satisfied passengers that the company cloyingly calls its "guests." A more apt word is "patsies."

The abuses of civil forfeiture -- in which police agencies profit by confiscating money and property in the name of drug control -- are so widely known even a Republican-controlled Congress felt the need to address some of them, last year passing the Civil Forfeiture Reform Act.

But those changes came too late for On Hoang Thach, a Vietnamese immigrant with limited English who had $148,000 taken from him by federal agents as he was traveling from California to his home in Boston. According to his attorney, Penni Adrian of Albuquerque, Thach, 26, was singled out for questioning in February 2000 because he had a minority-sounding name, had paid for his one-way ticket with cash and didn't give a call-back number at the time of the reservation.

During the stop in Albuquerque, Thach was approached in his roomette by federal agents. The DEA says Thach gave an agent permission to search the fanny pack he was carrying. But attorney Adrian said Thach didn't understand what was happening.

She said a transcript provided by the government of the taped conversation was missing important snippets from the original tape. "In many places where (Thach) made clear he didn't know what the agents were saying, those were left out of the transcript," said Adrian. For example, the exchange where "the agent said to my client "how old are you' and my client answered "I have three children,' " was left out of the transcript.

After the $149,000 was found in the fanny pack, which Thach claimed was gambling proceeds, the bills were taken outside to a drug-sniffing dog. But the dog did not alert to the presence of drugs. So the agents tried again with a second dog. It finally provided the desired result. (Despite studies that show upward of 96 percent of all money in circulation is contaminated with drug residue, police use drug-dog alerts as a basis to claim the money is part of the drug trade.) The DEA agents told Thach his money was suspected drug assets, took all but $1,000, enough so Thach could continue his trip home, and left him with a receipt. Thach was not charged with a crime, but he has had to post a $5,000 bond and hire an attorney to help him get his money back. The federal trial is set for October.

Certainly it is unusual and suspicious for someone to be carrying that kind of cash, but there was no actual evidence of wrongdoing. Thach was carrying legal tender, that is before the agents relieved him of it. And no doubt Amtrak got its piece.

Bill Schulz, Amtrak's vice president of corporate communications, says he doesn't know when this cooperative arrangement began or how much money Amtrak has pulled in as a result. The railroad, Schulz says, has its own force of 300 accredited police officers and welcomes "a close working relationship with state and federal law enforcement."

As to the privacy expectations of passengers, Schulz says the Amtrak Web site will soon warn customers in a privacy statement that reservation information is shared with law enforcement.

Thanks for nothing. How about really doing something for passengers. Tell the DEA that if it wants to board your trains to harass people where there isn't probable cause to believe they are engaging in criminal activity, the DEA will first have to get a warrant. Now that would be privacy protection.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico is in the process of investigating the potential for a lawsuit on behalf of a number of passengers, minorities mostly, who were profiled as drug couriers on Amtrak, but nothing was found. Peter Simonson, the organization's executive director, says by freely sharing information with the DEA, Amtrak may be breaking the Privacy Act of 1974, a law prohibiting federal agencies from exchanging identifying information without following certain protocols.

Schulz disagrees. Amtrak isn't subject to the Privacy Act, according to Schulz, since Congress specifically stated in Amtrak's enacting legislation that it is not a federal agency.

However, in 1995 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Amtrak, while privately incorporated, is a federally subsidized railroad with a majority of its board chosen by the government, and is therefore effectively part of the federal government and must abide by the Constitution.

But this is quibbling over the legalities, not the ethics. Amtrak's willingness to expose its customers to unwarranted police harassment for a cut of the profits is shameful. The kind of people who typically pay cash for tickets aren't drug runners. Some people don't like debt. Others don't own a credit card, either due to bankruptcy or because they have spotty employment and don't qualify. Why should their disadvantage invite intimidating questions from federal agents?

Amtrak once had an ad campaign touting: "See America at see level." Right. An America where police searches are routine, where you're a suspect for being poor, and where 10 percent off the top is the going price for help with a government shakedown.

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