Ah, the airport. It's where national security, the transportation industry, human psychology, aeronautical physics and government personnel collide in an awkward dance. Add into this mix the police who respond to Transportation Security Administration drug-related discoveries, and a collection of travelers that for whatever reason caught their attention.
The Dallas Observer filed a Texas Public Information Act request to the Dallas Police Department seeking records for a slew of drug arrests at various spots in the city — including Love Field Airport.
Within the ream of documents from the drug arrests, from 2013 to June 2016, are some tidbits that help lift the veil of what the airport workers, narcotic detectives and federal screeners are doing when it comes to the drug trade.
1) Those holding small amounts do get pinched, especially if they are dumb.
The vast majority of the reports were small quantities, and it seems like bad luck or rank stupidity attracted the attention of authorities. In one case, a 29-year-old from Colorado forgot to remove a bag of weed from his back pocket before entering a body scan. The bag held a gram of marijuana, an embarrassing misdemeanor. Some drug cases came about after TSA spotted something else — for example, a 2015 traveler thought it was a good idea to bring a slingshot in his carry-on bag. The ensuing
search found two zip lock bags containing smaller bags of pot and hash.
2) Bigger amounts of drugs are moving, and there may be a pattern.
Any substantial seizure of drugs sticks out as an anomaly at Love Field, but the drugs are moving. The biggest case in these files began in May, and not with an X-ray machine or drug dog but a Southwest Airlines ramp worker who caught a smell from a roll-away suitcase he was loading on a plane destined for Austin. When detectives got there they found "large packages of marijuana" inside the suitcase, along with some layers of dryer sheets. The cops passed the name on the luggage tag to the pilot, who said the plane wasn't moving until the case's owner identified himself. Detectives arrested him and a female companion. He told detectives that he "traveled to the Sacramento, California, area and got the marijuana from someone named 'Dirty.'" The cops tallied 15 bags containing 17 pounds of weed.
Here's where it gets interesting. According to media accounts, there have been similar-sized busts in Austin's airport of weed smugglers bringing product from California through Dallas. In February, police in Austin found 35 pounds in luggage from California and arrested two men. And in September, Austin police nabbed 22 pounds of marijuana from the checked luggage of an inbound flight that originated in Sacramento.
So this is either a coincidence born of legal medical weed in California and standard suitcases sizes, or there is California-Texas smuggling route operated by a guy named Dirty. Take your pick.
3) Authorities are more than happy to seize cash.
It's amazing how much counter-narcotics work at airports involves seizing wads of cash, even if those carrying it are not arrested. Love Field is no exception.
First things first: If you are on a domestic flight, there's no limit to the amount of cash you can legally carry. For international trips, travelers have to declare anything more than $10,000. But going through security with what the TSA calls "bulk cash" is a surefire way of attracting law enforcement attention — those TSA agents will call the cops on you for some questioning.
That's what happened to one guy at Love Field in March 2015. This is a pretty representative example, according to the reports we reviewed. It started when TSA screeners called police after they found two bundles of cash, each around $4,000, in his carry-on bag. The guy said he was in club promotions "and was going to Sacramento for work." (Sacramento again.) Even after he nervously and clumsily answered some questions — how much money he made last year, why didn't he bring enough clothes for a three day trip, he had no business cards, that sort of thing — the police escorted him to his gate, to make the flight. And that's when the radio check came back: He had a warrant for outstanding tickets. His subsequent arrest for those warrants gave police the time to bring a drug detection dog to sniff his cash. The canine, Jan, alerted to the odor of narcotics on the cash.
Here's some of the rationale given on the incident report for the detective's determination that the traveler's cash was related to the drug trade, and eligible for seizure:
A) The drug dog alert on the money.
B) Arrested Person's uncertainty over the amount of money he was carrying.
C) His vague work history.
D) The fact that AP waited until just before flight time to arrive at the airport.
E) AP was traveling from a user city to a source city.
F) AP was traveling without any luggage at all and planning to stay three days at his destination.
This is a local variation on what the federal Drug Enforcement Agency does all the time. A USA Today report earlier this year put a nice bow on it: "Federal drug agents regularly mine Americans’ travel information to profile people who might be ferrying money for narcotics traffickers — though they almost never use what they learn to make arrests or build criminal cases." In civil forfeiture, prosecutors need only make their case by a “preponderance of the evidence,” a far lower legal standard than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard required of criminal cases.
This is, as can be imagined, frustrating for those losing money. The police in the March 2015 case took the $8,245 the traveler was carrying. When detectives told him that they believed the cash "was proceeds of drug sales, he became uncooperative, stated he wanted his lawyer and that the detectives could 'suck his dick.'"
4) The TSA and police do practice profiling — on your cash and your belongings.
One interesting thing about how police target money are the inferences that are made based on the breakdown of the cash being carried. "The money was bound with rubber bands and in several denominations, which is consistent with bundling characteristics of drug proceeds," one report reads.
The things you pack in your suitcase can make the cash you carry seem suspicious and ripe for the picking. Last October, TSA stopped a Dallas-based owner of a glass smoking paraphernalia company who was carrying a little more than $20,000 in cash bundled in manila envelopes. Even worse for him, a drug detection dog named Tammy alerted to his bags. Inside the bag, police found an unused bong and two packages of rolling papers. "Those aren't illegal," the man stated, correctly. But the detectives had Tammy sniff the cash for good measure, and seized the money after she alerted to the stink of drugs on it. The cops gave the traveler a receipt for the money and sent him on his way.
5) Cops will watch for your heartbeat, and comment when they can see it through clothes.
An odd comment appears several times in these reports: "During the interview, [suspect] appeared nervous and the detective could see his heart beating through his shirt." One such comment said detective could see a heartbeat through woman's sweater. These comments are always used to support the officers' suspicions that those being interviewed are in the drug trade.
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This brings to mind the chest thumping action when Bugs Bunny falls in love. But the condition is called a protruding heartbeat, and it's most common not in criminals but skinny people.
In any case, criminal or no, an elevated heart rate is caused by being nervous. And who wouldn't be nervous, once the TSA has publicly handed you off to local police or even DEA agents for more questioning? And if you have cash on hand that can be seized — or even unpasteurized cheese or a sex toy in that bag — those nerves will manifest in an accelerated heart rate. At that point, it's better to have a thick chest and some loose clothing, because police use this as a sign of criminality.
6) Overdoing the camouflage of a drug hide can come back to bite.
Smugglers of recreational amounts of drugs can get better results by keeping it simple. Too often, efforts to conceal contraband are the very things that tip off the TSA, who then must pass the infraction to police. In a classic example from last July, a screener saw a strange cylinder on an x-ray screen. A hand examination found a rolled up issue of Texas Highways magazine with bags secured inside its pages with black electrical tape. "Inside the plastic bag were five folded pieces of paper that contained an unknown substance," the incident report reads. A TSA supervisor "stated he was fearful the substance might be explosive." Instead, it turned out to be 5 grams of THC oil. Detectives snared the bag's owner after reviewing surveillance video that proved he showed up to the airport carrying it.
In another case from this February, TSA personnel saw lead-lined bags in the checked bag of a traveler to Phoenix. This prompted a hand search that revealed $48,000 tucked inside the bags. Although drug detection dog (Tammy again) didn't alert to the bags, she did smell drugs on the money. "Detectives believe that this currency is the illicit profits of narcotics distribution and seized it as such," the incident report says.