In Plane Sight: Drug agents searching passengers for cash at airport gates
Agents search the carry-on bags of Hartsfield Jackson passengers without getting warrants and seize money without making arrests
ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - That passenger standing next to you at the departure gate may actually be a plain-clothes drug agent.
Atlanta News First Investigates recently tailed U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) task force officers as they walked, otherwise unnoticed, from gate to gate at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. We watched them search passengers right after they scanned their boarding passes.
“He just approached me, and he asked me for my ID,” film director Tabari Sturdivant said. “He didn’t state who he was. He just asked me for ID, and I thought he was a Delta agent. He had airport credentials on, and so I gave it to him immediately.”
Sturdivant was flying to Los Angeles for a film project last year when he was approached by the DEA task force officers. They searched his bag in front of the other passengers boarding the flight, according to video recorded by an onlooker.
The Atlanta-based film director said the agents asked, “Are you high? Have you smoked? Do you have any drugs in this bag? Do you have any money?”
The search of Sturdivant’s bag turned up nothing, and he was allowed to board the flight. But Atlanta News First Investigates found several similar cases where officers with the DEA task force or Clayton County Police searched innocent people or seized money without making any arrests.
‘See all those white folks, and I’m the random search’
Clayton County narcotics officers searched Emmy-winning Hollywood actor Jean Elie on the jet bridge of an Atlanta-to-Los Angeles flight in 2020.
“I’m a random search, guys,” Elie said on a recording he made of the drug agents searching his bag. “So he says,” Elie said, panning to the line for the aircraft boarding door and adding, “See all those white folks, and I’m the random search.”
Officers didn’t find anything in Elie’s carry-on bags, but continued to ask him questions. “Ever been arrested before?,” one of the officers asked. Elie politely but firmly responded, “Don’t worry about it, man…just hurry up and check my bag please and hurry so I can go back on my flight, please.”
Elie said he was humiliated by the experience. The actor tried to join a lawsuit against Clayton County police filed by comedians Erik André and Clayton English, but the statute of limitations had expired on Elie’s case by the time he decided he wanted to file.
According to André's and English’s lawsuit, Clayton County police stopped them on the jet bridge of separate ATL to LAX flights in 2020 and 2021, and searched their belongings in front of other passengers.
The comedians say they were racially profiled. Their lawsuit claims “these encounters are neither random nor consensual.”
The lawsuit quotes records from Clayton County police showing 56 percent of jet bridge stops involved Black passengers, and 68 percent were people of color. Atlanta News First Investigates recently obtained the same data and is analyzing the cases further.
The DEA stopped keeping race data on its searches 20 years ago, according to a 2015 Inspector General report.
Drug agents seize millions of dollars from departing passengers
Both Clayton County police records and federal court documents show drug agents working at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport rarely find drugs on passengers at departing gates.
More often, they find money.
Records show agents have seized millions of dollars from passengers at boarding gates. The money is administratively forfeited as the proceeds of drug trafficking even when no drugs are found.
Agents generally do not arrest the passenger. They arrest their money.
Atlanta News First Investigates found dozens of cases filed in federal court styled USA v. [some amount of] Currency. Passengers must file a claim within 45 days of receiving official notice the government has seized their money or it’s automatically forfeited. Most cases never go before a judge.
Technically, the burden of proof is on the government to show by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not) that the money is from drug trafficking. In practice, based on court records, passengers are forced to prove their money “innocent’ on the spot at the airport gate or it’s seized as drug proceeds.
After drug agents find money, passengers are forced to pull up bank statements on their phones or otherwise provide proof the money isn’t from drug trafficking.
Merely flying from Atlanta to Los Angeles is suspicious, according to multiple probable cause statements, because it’s a “known drug trafficking route.”
Atlanta to LA is also a popular route for film and television industry. Several of the innocent passengers who talked with Atlanta News First Investigates are in the entertainment business.
The U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General noted the lack of follow up investigations in a 2017 report. “The DEA and its state and local partners risked creating the appearance that they are more interested in seizing and forfeiting cash than advancing a potential criminal investigation,” the inspector general wrote.
According to US Department of Justice documents, the intent of the program is to disrupt drug traffickers by depriving them of money. The theory is that passengers flying to LA with cash will be travelling back to Atlanta with drugs, but those same records show there is rarely a follow up investigation or an arrest associated with a cash seizure from an outbound flight.
Agencies get to keep the money
There’s a strong incentive for drug agents to search bags for money at the airport even when drugs are not found: their agencies get to keep the money.
Through a memorandum of understanding with local police departments such as Brookhaven’s, the DEA gives police a cut of the proceeds from money the task force officers seize.
Brookhaven police have received more than $100,000 from the DEA since its department assigned a Brookhaven K9 handler and his dog to the drug task force a little more than a year ago.
The police department is 14 miles from the airport and in a different county, DeKalb.
Sgt. David Fikes is still featured on the Brookhaven Police Department’s Facebook page even though he is conducting plain-clothes drug interdiction operations at the airport and elsewhere.
Sgt. Fikes has been involved in the seizure of $1,163,047, according to records Atlanta News First Investigates obtained through an open records request. His department’s cut is about nine percent of that money, but Brookhaven is responsible for his salary, police car, K9 and other expenses.
Searches are supposed to be consensual
Innocent people who were searched at the airport said they were unsure of their rights to decline a search by police at the gate.
Airline passengers must submit to a security screening by TSA or else be denied entry into the airport’s secure area, under federal regulations. Passengers can be denied boarding for declining a security screening.
But passengers don’t surrender their Fourth Amendment rights against warrantless searches by police just because they’re at the airport, according to multiple legal analysts and court documents.
The DEA officially calls its stops and searches at airport gates, “cold consent encounters.” Passengers are free to end the discussion and walk away, according to the DEA, even if they’re unaware of those rights.
A federal judge recently dismissed the lawsuit filed by André and English in part because he said they should have known their stops were consensual and not a detention. The men were free to go even if they felt trapped by police in the jet bridge.
The men have filed a notice of appeal with the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
Others who have been searched at the boarding gate said they felt “coerced,” “pressured” or gave consent “under duress.”
In 2015, the Department of Justice Inspector General told the DEA it should stop causing confusion by referring to the searches as a “secondary inspection.” The IG wrote, “such terminology creates a risk that travelers will interpret the statement to mean they are required to consent to the encounter, similar to their obligations at a TSA checkpoint.”
Eight years later, a passenger’s recording shows a DEA task force officer telling the man, “We’re no different than TSA.” The agent added, “People like to give us a little more hard time than they give TSA.”
That same video shows some of the leverage DEA task force officers can use to gain consent.
“You’re either going to sign a consent form saying that you’re allowing us to search [your bags],” the drug agent told the passenger, “or I’m going to detain them, run my dog on it, and get a search warrant.”
The passenger immediately agreed to sign the consent form.
No drugs were found, but the agents did find money, which they seized. The passenger was allowed to board his flight while the federal government kept the money. The passenger has since filed a claim with the federal court in Atlanta.
Atlanta News First Investigates caught up with Sgt. Fikes and other DEA task force officers at the airport. Just like the agents themselves, we went in plain clothes to gates where flights to LA were boarding. We recorded two plain clothes agents searching a passenger who had just scanned his boarding pass.
We observed agents working in pairs at three different gates on the A concourse. They were dressed like passengers and blended in while sizing up people waiting to board. Only when they questioned someone would an airport ID be displayed around their neck. We never saw any police or DEA badges.
Sturdivant asked Atlanta News First Investigates to ask Sgt. Fikes about his search. Watch the encounter below.
Both Brookhaven police and DEA headquarters declined requests for interviews about their airport interdiction operations.
This is an ongoing Atlanta News First investigation.
CHIEF INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER BRENDAN KEEFE’S SERIES ON DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AMONG POLICE OFFICERS
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