If you’re traveling by train and a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent asks to search your bags, you have the right to refuse. Law enforcement only has the right to search you or your belongings if they have probable cause to believe you are committing a crime. Most of the time, when officers ask for your consent to search, they do not have probable cause.
If you refuse consent and the officer searches anyway, the evidence may not be admissible in court. If it is not, a defense attorney may be able to get your charges dropped. That all depends, however, on your refusing your consent to the search. As long as the officer has your consent, the search is considered legal.
But as we’ve discussed before, there is enormous psychological and social pressure to consent to a search by a law enforcement officer.
The independent investigative journalist outfit The Intercept recently reported on how the DEA uses searches to catch alleged drug and money couriers on Amtrak trains. One tactic is simply to board every train and ask everyone to submit to a search. People with drugs in their possession feel such pressure to consent that they do.
The same goes for people carrying large amounts of cash. Although what they are doing may very well be legal, law enforcement often alleges that any substantial amount of cash is likely to be payment for drugs. Once this allegation is made, the agency can legally seize the cash — even if they don’t charge the carrier with any crime. To get it back, the person will need to prove to a court that their money is not the product of or associated with criminal behavior.
Other tactics are more sinister
Sometimes, however, the searches are targeted at specific individuals. In many cases, the DEA has paid Amtrak employees to reveal details about travelers’ itineraries. Sometimes, the fact that a person is traveling on a one-way ticket, for example, is enough to flag a passenger for a search. That might be illegal, but the agents cover themselves by requesting consent.
The Intercept’s reporter found some evidence that the DEA, at least, has ridden close to the edge of what’s allowed by the Constitution. For example, she describes a DEA agent aggressively handling people’s stowed baggage, looking for evidence of drugs or money inside. He didn’t actually open the bags without probable cause or consent, however. Doing so would have been a clear constitutional violation.
What you need to know is that you can refuse a law enforcement officer’s request for a search. If they search anyway, don’t try to stop them, but contact your criminal defense attorney right away.