In Plane Sight: Drug agents searching passengers for cash at airport gates

Agents search carry-on bags without getting warrants and seize money without making arrests

(InvestigateTV) — That passenger standing next to you at the departure gate may actually be a plain-clothes drug agent.

InvestigateTV 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. Reporters 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 a video recorded by an onlooker.

The film director said the agents asked him, “Are you high? Have you smoked? Do you have any drugs in this bag? Do you have any money?”

Nothing came of the search of Sturdivant’s bag, and he was allowed to board the flight. But InvestigateTV found several similar cases where officers with the DEA task force or local police searched innocent people on jet bridges or seized money without making any arrests.

‘See all those white folks, and I’m the random search’

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 as he panned to the line for the aircraft boarding door, 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.

Atlanta’s airport is patrolled by the Atlanta Police Department, but the terminals are in Clayton County, Georgia. The county police department has a narcotics unit that has been trained under the federal Operation Jetway interdiction program.

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. InvestigativeTV recently obtained the same data and found similar numbers.

Our investigative team reviewed a recent DEA search report that did not indicate any demographic information. 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 local police records and federal court documents show drug agents working at the busiest airport in the world 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 at Atlanta’s airport alone. 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.

InvestigateTV 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 that 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 sometimes 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 the film and television industry. Several of the innocent passengers who talked with InvestigateTV are in the entertainment business.

Operation Jetway is conducted at airports across the nation, according to federal records.

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 U.S. 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 traveling 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.

“They’re not out there looking for crime they’re out there looking for money,” said Dan Alban, an attorney with the non-partisan Institute for Justice.

The non-profit has successfully fought cash forfeitures and is currently building a class action lawsuit against the DEA on behalf of passengers who had their money seized.

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, the DEA gives police a cut of the proceeds from money the task force officers seized.

“Task force officers, unlike actual DEA agents, are employees of some local or state law enforcement agencies the fact that they are a TFO means they are part of a task force they are cross-sworn as DEA agents,” Alban said. “By virtue of that, they’re participating in the federal equitable sharing program and a portion of the money that they seize goes back to their agency.”

One local police department north of Atlanta — 14 miles from the airport in another county — has received more than $100,000 from the DEA since its department assigned a K9 handler and his dog to the drug task force a little more than a year ago.

Searches are supposed to be consensual

Innocent people who were searched at the airport told InvestigateTV 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 on 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.”

“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,” the IG wrote.

But in an encounter eight years later, a passenger’s recording showed 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.

“It’s not a consensual interview in those circumstances,” Alban said. “It’s an ambush.”

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.

“There absolutely is an injustice when you’re searched without probable cause, without some sort of basis for the government to believe that you’ve committed a crime,” Alban added.

InvestigateTV caught up with 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 plainclothes agents searching a passenger who had just scanned his boarding pass.

We observed agents working in pairs at three different gates at Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport. 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 InvestigateTV to ask about his search when we caught up with the DEA task force officer who questioned him. Watch the encounter below.

Both local police and DEA headquarters declined requests for interviews about their airport interdiction operations.

Congress is taking notice

“I think it was rotten to the core,” U.S. Senator Rand Paul said. The Kentucky Republican has submitted legislation going back years to make it harder for police to seize money from people without arresting them.

“That’s not the way our country’s supposed to work. You’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, not, ‘Oh, you’re guilty. Give me your stuff, and then you can have it back if you prove you didn’t get it through ill-gotten gains,’” Sen. Paul told InvestigateTV.

The Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act recently passed the House Judiciary Committee by unanimous vote.

The House bill has 18 cosponsors — half Republicans, half Democrats.

“Up until my bill came out of [Judiciary], they hadn’t passed anything out of the committee unanimously,” U.S. Representative Tim Walberg said.

The conservative Michigan Republican has been pushing the measure for nine years. His primary cosponsor is liberal Maryland Democrat Rep. Jamie Raskin.

The FAIR Act would send all money seized by the federal government to the general fund, taking away what Rep. Walberg calls a perverse incentive because agencies currently get to keep the money they seize.

The bill would also increase the government’s burden of proof in civil asset forfeiture cases to clear and convincing.

Rep. Walberg said actual criminals have more rights than innocent people who have their money seized by law enforcement without an arrest.

Under civil asset forfeiture, the burden of proof is much lower. Yet 90 percent of the cases where the government seizes money never get reviewed by a judge. They’re handled administratively by the agency that seizes the money.

With criminal asset forfeiture, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused drug dealer broke the law.

“We are going to treat law-abiding citizens at the very least the same as we treat criminals,” Rep. Walberg said.

Brendan Keefe

Brendan Keefe

Brendan Keefe is the Peabody, duPont, National Murrow & National Emmy winning Chief Investigator of Atlanta News First Investigates.