Cash Seizures by DEA on Amtrak Trains

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has a long history of conducting “cold consent encounters” at Amtrak train stations. In these cases, the DEA agents and local task force officers associated with DEA will board an Amtrak train in order to “randomly” find passengers carrying U.S. Currency that can be seized for forfeiture.

Although Amtrak has its own police department, many of the seizures of U.S. currency involve DEA interdiction Task Force Groups (TFGs) that work to interdict drug trafficking at transportation facilities such as Amtrak train stations throughout Florida and the rest of the United States.

Not only do these encounters raise serious civil rights concerns, but the practice encourages the DEA agents and TFOs to provide false testimony about the “consensual” nature of the warrantless searches.

The DEA agent or TFO might approach an Amtrak passenger based on either of two types of techniques for “cold” consent encounters including:

  1. based on no particular behavior; or
  2. based on the officer’s perception that the passenger is a drug trafficker or money launderer without having any independent predicating information.

The courts have described consent encounters as  “lukewarm” if another law enforcement officer or Amtrak employee communicates a secret tip that a particular passenger is carrying a large amount of money. DEA sometimes gives the secret tipster a secret cash report, although those facts are often left out of the report. 

If your money was seized by DEA or task force officers at the Amtrak Train Station, then find an experienced attorney who can help you get the money back by filing a verified claim.

Attorney for DEA Seizures of U.S. Currency at Amtrak Train Stations

If your U.S. Currency was seized by a DEA agent or task force officer at an Amtrak train station or Greyhound bus station, then contact an experienced attorney at Sammis Law Firm. We fight these cases throughout Florida and the rest of the United States.

In some cases, local attorneys across the country will contact us to co-counsel on an Amtrak cash seizure case with them. No matter the circumstances, if your money was seized, then contact us to discuss your case.

After the seizure, the DEA agent will tell you that you have to wait up to sixty (60) days to get a letter or notice of the seizure. But you do not have to wait. An attorney can help you file a verified claim immediately claim for court action even before the notice arrives in the mail.

Once the verified claim is filed, the DEA must immediately turn the case over to an Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) who must decide whether the warrantless seizure was unconstitutional. The AUSA must also decide whether sufficient evidence supported the seizure and whether sufficient evidence now exists to file the complaint for forfeiture.

The 90-day deadline requires the AUSA to either return the money or file a civil forfeiture case filed in the U.S. District Court. In those cases, the prosecutor will allege that the money was intended to be exchanged for controlled substances or were “proceeds traceable to such an exchange.”

The best result in these cases requires convening the AUSA to immediately return the money without filing a complaint for forfeiture in the U.S. District Court. If the complaint is filed, you might be entitled to interest and attorney fees if you prevail in court.

For more information on how we can help, call 813-250-0500.

How DEA Conducts Searches on Amtrak Trains in the U.S.

The DEA entities most likely to conduct consent encounters at transportation facilities like Amtrak are DEA interdiction Task Force Groups (TFGs).

TFGs are teams of DEA Special Agents and state and local police officers who have been deputized to serve as DEA Special Agents. TFGs are under the operational control of the DEA.

If the seized cash is forfeited to the U.S. government, it will then be dispersed among the agencies participating in the DEA interdiction Task Force Groups (TFGs) in accordance with the requirements of the equitable sharing program as required by 21 U.S.C. § 881.

The DEA agents and TFGs have access to Amtrak records and itineraries. These records are flagged for seemingly benign factors such as:

  • recently purchased tickets;
  • one way tickets;
  • tickets purchased by a third party;
  • tickets purchased with cash;
  • having luggage or not having luggage;
  • acting nervous;
  • acting calm;
  • looking around;
  • remaining still;
  • boarding early; or
  • boarding late.

If the suspect purchases a ticket with a sleeper berth, the DEA agent might also find that suspicious. Of course, the name of the passenger might give the DEA insight into their nationality. 

The DEA agent might confront the passenger at the train station or in the sleeper berth. The DEA agents often dress in a way that makes their service weapon, handcuffs, or other equipment visible, even if the agent is wearing plain clothes.

At the beginning of the encounter, the DEA agent might identify himself as a police officer or displayed his badge. The agents might explain that they are randomly speaking with people on the train. DEA agents are trained to start asking questions including:

  1. where did you come from?
  2. where are you going to?
  3. what is the purpose of your travel?
  4. can I see your ticket?
  5. can I see your identification?
  6. did you check any luggage?
  7. what carry on luggage do you have?
  8. do you have any firearms or drugs?
  9. are you carrying any U.S. Currency?
  10. can I search your bags?

The initial detention might be illegal from its inception since the DEA agent or TFO has no real information that the passenger is engaged in drug trafficking or money laundering.

The interrogation might escalate to the point that the DEA agent starts accusing the passenger of being a drug trafficker or money launderer.

If the DEA agents do not gain consent, they might use a trained drug dog to sniff the luggage and provide an “alert.” The alleged alert might then be used to convenience the traveler to give consent or as a basis for obtaining an arrest warrant.

The alert is not particularly persuasive evidence since it has been repeatedly demonstrated that there is widespread contamination of U.S. Currency with drug residue. For this reason, a positive alert for a K9 drug dog is not an indication that the currency was more likely to be contaminated than any other currency in circulation.

Why the DEA Agent Alleges “Consent” to Search Was Given

DEA rarely has a search warrant to search an Amtrak passenger. Under the Fourth Amendment, an exception to the warrant requirement is needed before the seizure will pass constitutional muster.

Alleging that the encounter was “free and voluntary” is the DEA agent’s only avenue of showing that the search and seizure was legal.

For this reason, the DEA agent or TFO will then alleged that they obtained “consent” to speak with the traveler or search their bags. From the passenger’s perspective, the consent is not free or voluntary because they are only answering the questions of the officer because they believe it is required or because they are submitting to the apparent authority of the DEA agent or TFO.

The courts rarely consider these encounters to be voluntary because the facts often show that the TFO is seeking to require the person to participate in the encounter or submit to a search.

When determining whether the content was free and voluntary, the court must determine whether a reasonable person would understand that he or she could refuse to cooperate.” Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429, 431 (1991). The courts also look at a host of other factors including:

  1. Whether the defendant was advised of his right not to cooperate.
  2. Whether and for how long officers retain the defendants’ personal effects or identification;
  3. The number of officers present, their demeanor and tone of voice;
  4. Whether the officers’ service weapons are visible;
  5. Whether the police are in plain clothes or are uniformed; and
  6. Whether any physical restraints were used.

Allegations of Racial Profiling by DEA at Amtrak

When it comes to the DEA conducting “cold consent encounters” at Amtrak train stations, many passengers have alleged that racial profiling is occurring.

Some complaints have alleged that the DEA agents will only target Black or Hispanic passengers and rarely question or search passengers who are white. When complaints of racial profiling by the DEA are made, the agency will often clear the DEA agents or task force officers of any wrongdoing.

DEA agents often ignore policies in the DEA Agents Manual that applies to consent searches and interdictions at a train or bus station including:

  • the reporting consent searches on a DEA Report of Investigation (DEA-6) form within five working days of the search; and
  • giving a person the opportunity to read and sign a DEA Consent to Search (DEA-88) form.

Furthermore, the DEA Interdiction Manual states that agents “should advise the suspects that they have a right to refuse to consent to a search.”

How often does DEA seize money?

How often does DEA seize money from Amtrax customers? This question was answered in an article entitled “Review of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Use of Cold Consent Encounters at Mass Transportation Facilities” authored in January of 2015 by the Evaluation and Inspections Division 15-3 of the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General. 

According to the article, ‘[f]rom 2009 to 2013, DEA interdiction TFGs seized $163 million in 4,138 individual cash seizures” using all seizure methods which included both cold consent encounters and other investigative and interdiction methods.

Only twenty-one percent (21%) of those DEA seizures of cash were contested and all or a portion of the seized cash in only forty-one (41%) percent of those contested cases was returned.

So out of the $163 million seized, only $8.3 million was returned which is only 5%. The money is rarely returned because few passengers hire a qualified civil asset forfeiture attorney to help them contest the legality of the seizure and file a verified claim for court action.

Drug Investigation Training for DEA Agents

DEA agents undergo training in conducting drug investigations and interdictions including the 2020 DEA Basic Drug Investigation Course.

These courses focus on conducting financial investigations, surveillance of subjects, undercover operations, confidential source management, or drug identification and pharmacology.

Training by DEA also focuses on how to conduct “cold consent encounters” at Amtrak Train Stations as a means of interdiction to find passengers with U.S. Currency that can be seized for forfeiture.

Amtrak Stations in Florida

In Florida, Amtrak has three routes in Florida including:

  • the Auto Train (stops only in Sanford, FL);
  • the Silver Star (with services to Tampa)(with a cafe but no dining serve);
  • Silver Meteor with dining services.

Although most stations are on the East Coast, one line runs to Tampa, FL. Amtrak has 19 stations in Florida including:

  • DeLand, FL (DLD)
  • Deerfield Beach, FL (DFB)
  • Delray Beach, FL (DLB)
  • Fort Lauderdale, FL (FTL)
  • Hollywood, FL (HOL)
  • Jacksonville, FL (JAX)
  • Kissimmee, FL (KIS)
  • Lakeland, FL – To/from Points South (LKL)
  • Lakeland, FL – To/from Points North (LAK)
  • Miami, FL (MIA)
  • Okeechobee, FL (OKE)
  • Orlando, FL (ORL)
  • Palatka, FL (PAK)
  • Sanford, FL – Auto Train Station (SFA)
  • Sebring, FL (SBG)
  • Tampa, FL – Union Station (TPA)
  • West Palm Beach, FL (WPB)
  • Winter Haven, FL (WTH)
  • Winter Park, FL (WPK)

According to the DEA, the train station with the largest number of seizures of U.S. Currency is the Amtrak train station in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Additional Resources

DEA Cold Consent Encounters at Mass Transit Facilities – Read a report entitled “Review of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Use of Cold Consent Encounters at Mass Transportation Facilities” published by the Evaluation and Inspections Division 15-3 in January of 2015.

DEA Agents Ambush Amtrak Passengers With Controversial Searches and Seizures – Read an article published on The Intercept on August 31, 2019, that follows the investigations of a previous International Narcotics Interdiction Association’s Agent/Officer of the Year. The article focused on the tactics used by Special Agent Jarrell (Jay) Perry with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to seize money from people at Amtrak training stations in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The DEA agent was involved with thousands of searches of passengers at train and bus depot in his district while searching for travelers carrying U.S. Currency that can be seized for forfeiture.

Amtrak Police Department (APD) – The APD is a national police force with more than 400 sworn and civilian employees focused on the safety and security of those traveling on Amtrak. The Amtrak Police Department (APD) works with transit, rail, local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to provide a police presence at Amtrak train stations. Officers with the Amtrak Police Department provide tips to DEA agents about travelers who are carrying large sums of money in order to indirectly provide assistance with civil asset seizures. The Public Affairs and Administration division of the Amtrak Police Department manages the Asset Forfeiture program.

This article was last updated on Friday, April 9, 2021.