Here’s What ‘Suspicious Behavior’ Can Get You Stopped at the Airport

There’s a story from my home airport in Austin about police “monitor[ing] incoming flights from cities known to be origins for travelers ferrying narcotics.” In this case that means flights from Los Angeles.

I’ve written before that law enforcement can stop you if you are flying from a known source of drugs or to a city that is known to consume drugs. Which is basically anywhere. The government claimed the right to stop passengers (and seize their cash) because they were flying Los Angeles – Chicago.

Flying between Chicago and LA and carrying a backpack is enough for the government to stop you, search you, and confiscate your money. The DEA contends that this airline route is special — both Chicago and Los Angeles are “part of a federally-designated ‘High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.’” Of course so is New York, and cities comprising two-thirds of the country’s population. Flying between New York and DC or New York and Chicago (perhaps with or without a backpack) would suffice under the standard used by the DEA.

LAX allows you to bring pot but that doesn’t mean you won’t get stopped at your destination.

In Austin police noticed a man coming off a Los Angeles flight who was “wearing a large hoodie with the hood up.” That’s suspicious because it could either mean that the guy works in tech or he’s “trying to conceal his identity” because wearing a hoodie is “in line with past smugglers.” I imagine that smugglers are known to wear clothing and either walk slowly to avoid suspicion, or walk quickly to get out of view as fast as possible.

Officers followed that man, but it turned out that nothing came of it. However while following that man they noticed a different man who ‘looked similar’ near baggage claim. And the similar-looking man “stood directly in front of the baggage chute to pull his luggage as soon as it came up.” Which is exactly what I do but is apparently suspicious.

Police said most passengers wait for the bags to come around, but smugglers try to grab theirs quickly to avoid leaving them on the carousel too long.

On the basis of looking similar to someone police were following (but who wasn’t apparently doing anything nefarious, like standing close to the baggage chute) they stopped the man and questioned him. After determining the man’s identity they learned he had an outstanding warrant for a traffic violation. That gave them the opportunity to arrest him ‘and inventory’ (search) his luggage. That’s when they found marijuana.

In a 1992 dissent (United States v Weaver, 966 F 2d 391) then-8th Circuit Chief Judge Richard Arnold (whom both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton considered appointing to the Supreme Court) argued,

Airports are on the verge of becoming war zones, where anyone is liable to be stopped, questioned, and even searched merely on the basis of the on-the-spot exercise of discretion by police officers. The liberty of the citizen, in my view, is seriously threatened by this practice. The sanctity of private property, a precious human right, is endangered. It’s hard to work up much sympathy for Weaver. He’s getting what he deserves, in a sense. What is missing here, though, is an awareness that law enforcement is a broad concept. It includes enforcement of the Bill of Rights, as well as enforcement of criminal statutes. Cases in which innocent travelers are stopped and impeded in their lawful activities don’t come to court. They go on their way, too busy to bring a lawsuit against the officious agents who have detained them. If the Fourth Amendment is to be enforced, therefore, it must be by way of motions to suppress in cases like this.

This was nearly a decade before 9/11.

Last year it was revealed that the TSA was assigning agents to follow ordinary Americans and record their behavior. That behavior was exposed and shamed, both because it was creepy and for no legitimate purpose. But creepy violations of civil liberties don’t just stem from the war on terror, they’re still a feature of the war on drugs as well.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. If TSA or the police at the airport even smell a small stage of marijuana or suspect you of something for no reason at all, you will be detained and most likely charged with a crime.

  2. Thanks to TSA and airport police, many are being introduced to the “training day” approach to policing that minorities are familiar with. You want to go home or do you want to go to jail?

  3. There was a city that stopped people on suspicion of being drug dealers. The stated reason was:

    1. drug dealers are law breakers. They speed.

    2. drug dealers are afraid of standing out so they drive exactly at the speed limit.

    3. drug dealers are so afraid of getting stopped that they drive under the speed limit.

  4. What is the exact complaint here? The police found illegal drugs in someone’s baggage. Who is in the wrong, the police who are primarily there to protect law-abiding citizens or the drug smuggler, who by the way also has an outstanding traffic warrant? Law abiding citizens, those who respect our Constitution and laws, answer warrants and don’t smuggle illegal substances.

  5. Grandma, if you have read and studied the Constitution (which is presumably a requirement for “respecting” it), then you would know that there’s nothing in the Constitution that gives the government the power to make any plant or substance “illegal”, or to tell people which plants or substances they can consume The entire phony “war drugs” is absolutely, extremely un-Constitutional. Therefore, LEO’s who swear an oath to the Consitution and then go and enforce illegal and un-Constitutional laws are in fact acting unlawful, as criminals.

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