Civil Liberties

More Reasons to Be Nervous About Amtrak: Illegitimate Federal Agent Hassles

The train service sells out its customers to the DEA.


Scott Shackford reported here recently on the terrible tale of a young man having his life savings of $18,000 in cash stolen by federal agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration on an Amtrak train from Michigan to Los Angeles.

Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic has more stories of DEA hassling train travelers for no good reason, and the scary larger context:

Last year, the Associated Press reported that the DEA "paid an Amtrak secretary $854,460 over nearly 20 years to obtain confidential information about train passengers, which the DEA could have lawfully obtained for free through a law enforcement network." (This was reportedly done so that the DEA could avoid sharing seized assets with Amtrak police, which hints at how lucrative such seizures are.)

Around the same time, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request after getting reports about Amtrak passengers having their rights violated. "This type of targeting constitutes a significant invasion of personal privacy," an attorney wrote in the accompanying memo. "It suggests that Amtrak is sharing the travel-related data of thousands of its passengers who have engaged in no wrongdoing."

Later an ACLU staffer reported on the results of the request. Amtrak employees are instructed to report conduct "indicative of criminal activity" to law enforcement.

Among them:

  • Unusual nervousness of traveler
  • Unusual calmness or straight ahead stare
  • Looking around while making telephone call(s)
  • Position among passengers disembarking (ahead of, or lagging behind passengers)
  • Carrying little or no luggage
  • Purchase of tickets in cash
  • Purchase tickets immediately prior to boarding

So to avoid getting hassled by the state, don't act nervous, but don't act too calm either. Don't stare straight ahead unless you're on the telephone, in which case don't look around. And disembark right amidst all the other passengers with lots of luggage.

In a country in which police officers shoot and kill many more unarmed people than their analogues overseas, having the DEA hassle you and cost you $60 isn't the biggest of law-enforcement abuses. It is, nevertheless, worth remembering that these sorts of incidents happen, because unlike misconduct that results in death or serious injury, relatively modest violations of rights like this often go unreported. Heuser didn't complain to the DEA. "I've had my friends complain to the police before," he explained, "and they basically said, you better watch yourself pal."

For real: gendarmes bothering innocent travelers on trains is a storytelling cultural sign of a malign, sinister European/banana republic tyranny in the world I grew up in. Now, it's just the American way, goddamnit.