Civil Liberties

Railway Bandits


Amtrak manages to lose money on 39 of its 41 routes, but that doesn't stop it from making a killing off some of its customers. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, Amtrak officials cut a deal with the Drug Enforcement Administration: In exchange for giving the drug police access to its booking system, Amtrak gets 10 percent of any money the cops take from hapless passengers.

In February 2000, the deal helped Amtrak make $14,700 off Sam Thach, who was traveling from Fullerton, California, to Boston. When the train pulled into the Albuquerque station, DEA agents relieved him of $147,000. Did Thach possess any drugs? No, but he purchased his one-way ticket with cash, and he failed to give Amtrak his phone number. So the DEA seized his cash under forfeiture rules that have since been changed. Thach is now suing in federal court to get his money back.

More recently, on April 5, 2001, the DEA seized $640,000 from Jennifer Leigh Ames, who was traveling from Chicago to Los Angeles. Apparently, she had looked nervous and—worse yet!—had refused to grant agents permission to search her belongings.

Since Amtrak's deal was first reported earlier this year in the Albuquerque Journal, the railroad has been on the defensive. It claimed the bargain is one of a kind, but in an e-mail to the Journal, Amtrak said it "will, on request, participate in and provide information for law enforcement." (Amtrak didn't return Reason's calls for clarification and won't cop to how much it has earned from its train heists.) On April 25, the railroad announced it would no longer provide the DEA direct access to the reservation system. Amtrak will do the snooping itself, and exchange tips on its passengers for 10 percent of the DEA's take.

For its part, the DEA sees nothing wrong with the arrangement. Spokesperson Rogene Waite says the agency has similar deals with bus companies and airlines, but she won't discuss them.

Waite's also mum on whether the DEA's infiltration of Amtrak's reservation system is nationwide or limited to New Mexico. Evidence suggests the former. A September 1999 story in the Newark, New Jersey, Star-Ledger explains how DEA investigators in Washington, D.C., figure out who to target. Investigators told the paper, "Suspicious signs include people who pay cash for expensive, one-way tickets at the last minute, or whose phone number turns out to be bogus. Getting a sleeper car but not checking any luggage is on the list." Without access to travelers' booking information, how would the cops know any of this information?

The American Civil Liberties Union worries that the police are targeting minorities (which the cops of course deny). Still, sometimes they target the wrong minorities. Carlos Hernandez, a former Newark policeman, knew his rights when he found officers inspecting his sleeper cabin on July 22, 1999. The cops told him they wanted to search his luggage because they had been tipped that he had a large amount of narcotics. "I'll bet my kids' life they looked at the train's manifest, saw a Hispanic riding first class, $694 round-trip ticket, and they just wanted to shake me down," Hernandez told The Star-Ledger, noting that the police broke the law by entering his cabin without a warrant and without his permission. "You went into my cabin, that's burglary," he said.

It certainly is, except when the burglars have badges—and conductor's watches.