Profiling in Our Airports
By: Dee Wampler
When Andrew Sokolow approached a United Airlines counter he aroused immediate suspicion. He acted nervous, plunked $2100 from a bulging wad of bills to buy roundtrip tickets, he did not check his luggage but chose to carry it on board. He used an assumed name and stayed in Miami only 48 hours. His actions matched those in the behavior profile used by the Drug Enforcement Administration to spot would-be drug traffickers. Upon returning to Honolulu, DEA agents arrested him, searched his bags and found 1100 grams of cocaine.
In a vote of 7 to 2 the U.S. Supreme Court in U.S. v Sokolow,¹ granted federal agents broad discretion to use “drug-courier profiles” to search travelers at airports.
It is true his behavior could have been “consistent with innocent travel,” but “taken together” his actions elicited “reasonable suspicion.” The fact that it was set forth in a profile does not somehow detract from their evidentiary significance.
Drug profiles are meant only to inform and advise agents that actual arrests depend upon the individual professional judgment of officers, kind of a mental check list. Veteran law enforcement officers noticed certain things about patterns and techniques of drug smugglers. It is old school that drugs are hidden in objects in suitcases, aerosol cans, body wraps, and body orifices. There is nothing beyond what people will do such as putting drugs in a baby’s diaper.
Drug profile evidence is “nothing more than the opinion of those officers conducting an investigation,”² and later in court, provides background material on how and why the suspect was stopped. It is a “informal compilation of characteristics,”³ merely an investigative tool.
The parameters of the police-citizen encounters have now been clarified in the last 25 years. Courts consistently reject sole reliance on such profiles but a reasonable suspicious veteran police officer can use these factors as a basis for investigative detention.*
In recent years law enforcement officers have used racial profiling, marijuana growers profile, spousal abuse profile, auto theft profile, terrorist profile, and money launderer profile, just to name a few. Profile information can provide “reasonably trustworthy information” to assist an officer to stopping and arresting suspicious individuals.
¹ 490 U.S. 1 (1989)
² U.S. v Beltran-Rios, 878 F2d 1208 (9th Cir. 1989)
³ U.S. v Campbell, 843 F2d 1089 (8th Cir. 1988), Florida v Royer, 460 U.S. 491 (1983)
* U.S. v Scott, 545 F2d 38 (8th Cir. 1976)