A Cop's View on "Drug Courier Profiling" (Whoops – I meant "Drug Courier Indicators")

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the start of the infamous “Drug War” there has been
a constant attack and chipping away at the security
and privacy rights guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment.
One of the most audacious and controversial schemes
is the concept of making seizures of a persons and properties
based on the “drug courier profiles.”

has long been used at the nation’s airports (see box
at right for extracts from a comprehensive analysis
of this activity) and recently we find that similar
activity and breaches of personal privacy have been
going on for years with respect to the passengers of
the Amtrak passenger trains (see Amtrak
Pulls DEA Computer, Albuquerque Journal, April
25, 2001

are useful to the police and federal drug agents because
of the annoying requirement for “probable cause” in
order to detain a “suspect” as defined by that antiquated
document, the Constitution (4th Amendment). “Probable
cause," being as vague a dollar watch warranty,
is easily provided by defining a crook by his/her looks
and accessories. That not much is needed to get by the
“probable cause” requirement has been repeatedly confirmed
by the courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court (which
made a decision just this week, in Atwater v. City of
Lago Vista, that “lowers the constitutional threshold
by which citizens can be deprived of their liberty,"
according to Timothy

doing some web research recently on the matter of “profiles,"
I stumbled on a site that supports police and promotes
a major asset for getting by the Fourth Amendment —
drug sniffing dogs. But ignoring the money
making dog hawking
(“Perhaps the most profitable
investment a community can make is establishing a POLICE
K-9 UNIT. A properly trained K-9 will usually pay for
itself in 60 days and keep the revenue of city hall
running high by utilizing the drug forfeiture laws.”
according to Robert A. Austin, president of K-9 WORLD
OF DOGS, who is also a “Certified Police Officer in
State of Ohio," according
to his resume

follows is a review of one of his documents; the rest
are equally “interesting” but time and space do not
permit any further indulgence in this nonsense at this
time. We read almost daily a citizen and/or libertarian
view of the current police state of America — now let
us see what the other side has to say.

Courier Profile Indicators

document, DRUG
, discusses a precise drug profile model
which will allow the police to nab the druggies without
in anyway stepping on the constitutional rights of ordinary

from this document will follow along with my comments.
To distinguish the two, I will put the extracts indented
in brown, like so:


first sentence of the article is a small warning concerning

recent years, the term “Drug Courier Profile” has
been used to describe those involved in the transportation
of drugs. As this is accepted terminology in general
conversation, it can create legal problems if used
in conjunction with a vehicle stop.

you have been wondering why the cops gave up “drug courier
profiling” especially since it was really doing the
job — that is, until a few whining liberals and libertarians
stirred up the press. The solution was simple: don’t
use the term “Drug Courier Profile” anymore! In
a later part of the article, the author advises on the
proper way to refer to this operation now.

us continue with the authors introduction:

someone because they fit a “Drug Courier Profile”
has been referred to as a “reasonable suspicion” or
pretext stop. In recent court cases, the courts have
had mixed opinions on the legality of detaining someone
based on nothing but reasonable suspicion. For this
reason, we will not stop someone solely on suspicion
that she/he fits a drug courier profile.
a vehicle has been stopped for a violation, or within
the scope of our duties, the officer should then look
for indicators leading him to believe that the person
is involved in drug trafficking.

that is nice to know — my Fourth Amendment rights are
not going to be violated unless I have somehow made
a minor traffic violation. I got a feeling that I couldn’t
drive to the grocery store and back without making some
“minor traffic violation.”

is more troubling is the concept that if you break one
law it creates the option for the police to investigate
you for any other potential violation, totally unrelated
to the initial infraction.

one more thing — don’t you find the phrasing of the
second sentence a little scary?

us continue.

can be broken down into three categories;

  1. Exterior of the vehicle and driving habits.
  2. Interior of the vehicle.
  3. The driver and/or passengers.

following is a list of indicators that have been present
during numerous seizures by various law enforcement
agencies. As additional indicators are discovered,
they will be provided to you.

we are finally getting to the juicy parts.

Indicators to look for:

  1. Large or late model cars with large trunks –
    GM most popular.
    a. Intermediate size also used.
    b. Occasionally a smaller car will be involved.

you see why I referred to this scheme as “a precise
drug profile model.” As you can see, this “filter” is
tailored to exactly what a druggie would use — a large,
or maybe an intermediate or small — automobile. Such
precision was learned from watching old Perry Mason
flicks, I would bet.

    1. Older car in top running condition.

if not a late model car, maybe an older model. Let us
not be too picky. Certainly no honest, law-abiding citizen
would be seen in an older car that runs good.

    1. Vans and pickup trucks with
      camper tops also commonly used.
    2. Tinted or blacked out windows.
    3. Numerous radio antennas.
      a. CB radios.
      b. Police scanners.
    4. Radar Detectors
    5. Vehicles equipped with air shocks that normally
      wouldn’t have them.
    6. Two or more vehicles running in tandem.
    7. Pulling speed boats with cover.

how many honest citizens would be caught dead with any
of that stuff? But you know, this is making me think
about that sorry brother-in-law of mine who lives over
in Alabama. That no good son-of-a-gun not only has a
pick-up with a camper shell on the back, antennas all
over the place, pumped up shocks, and on and on, but
he also drags that big bass boat around all the time
just to show off. I’m surprised they haven’t nailed
his butt already.

from the article, THE DRUG COURIER PROFILE,
by CHARLES L. BECTON, North Carolina Law Review
MARCH, 1987, 65 N.C.L. Rev. 417

following discussion presents a list of factors categorized
under seven topical headings: (1) Reservations and Ticket
Purchases; (2) Airports and Flights; (3) Nervousness
and Associated Behavior; (4) Significance of Luggage;
(5) Companions (Traveled With or Picked Up By); (6)
Personal Characteristics; and (7) Miscellany.

agents, without regard to consistency, have testified
that the factors discussed under these topical headings
form part of the bases on which they decide to detain
air travelers. . . .

Reservations and Ticket Purchases — In many cases drug
agents testify without hesitation that drug couriers
seldom make reservations, and that couriers instead
prefer to purchase their airline tickets immediately
before flight departure time. With no less resolve drug
agents testify also that drug couriers often make recent
or short-notice reservations. . . .

Airports and Flights — When DEA agents first developed
the drug courier profile, the “source city” designation
became a preeminent profile factor. Drug agents routinely
monitored incoming flights from source cities. . . .
With little regard for consistency, DEA agents testify
that each of the following constitutes a prominent profile
factor: (1) Non-stop or direct flights to and from source
cities; and (2) Circuitous routes or changing airlines
or flights to and from source cities.

Nervousness and Associated Behavior — Despite drug agents’
testimony that they can detect “growing nervousness”
or tell-tale eyes, there is no uniform or coherent list
of profile factors relating to nervousness. Walking
quickly is considered a prime behavior factor, but so
is walking slowly. Walking in an unusual pattern through
the terminal and rushing to the restroom after deplaning
appear just as significant as leaving the terminal in
a hurried and nervous manner. . . .

Significance of Luggage — All air travelers fit at least
one of the profile factors regarding the use of luggage.
DEA agents deem it significant when air travelers check
no luggage. . . . Similarly, DEA agents testify inconsistently
regarding the amount of luggage an air traveler carries.
Carrying no luggage is as noteworthy as carrying a small
tote bag, a medium-size bag, two bulky garment bags,
“two apparently heavy-laden suitcases,” or four pieces
of luggage. . . .

Personal Characteristics — Depending on which case is
read, a typical drug courier is either a black male,
a female, a black female, an Hispanic person, or a young
person who may be “sloppily dressed” or “smartly dressed..”
. .

Miscellany — . . . drug agents treat the following drug
courier profile factors with equal significance: being
the first, or one of the first, passengers to deplane;
being the last passenger to deplane; and deplaning from
the middle. By way of further example, making a local
telephone call immediately after deplaning constitutes
a profile factor, as does making a long-distance telephone
call. Similarly, drug agents have testified that leaving
the airport by public transportation, especially taxi,
private vehicle, limousine, or hotel courtesy van all
constitute profile factors.

    1. Vehicle Registration:
      a. Common tags seen are Florida, Texas, Maryland,
      New York and New Jersey
      b. Florida “Z” for all rental and leased cars

I always figured folks from those states were up to
no good. And what kind of president would come from
those places? I guess you notice, Arkansas is not on
the list!

    1. Stickers or decals indicating
      where the car is from or has been – do they
      match state of registration?

I guess I better go out and scrape those Brandon, Missouri
decals off my P.U. right now as I ain’t really from

  1. Driving habits often result
    in the courier being stopped for a routine violation

    a. Speeding up and slowing down
    b. Scrupulous obedience to traffic laws –
    overly cautious
    c. Erratic driving due to drug or alcohol use
    d. Many drive straight through and take drugs
    to stay awake
    e. Take a long time to pull over

advice there, I’m sure. The next time I take a trip
I don’t intend to ever speed up or slow down, I will
try to break a traffic law now and then (how can “Scrupulous
obedience to traffic laws” be a “routine violation”?),
I won’t drank no beers or coffee to try to stay awake,
and I will throw the truck into a four wheel lock-up
if I ever even think I hear a siren.

    1. In order to avoid leaving
      the vehicle they will often sleep in a rest area

I been known to take a little nap now and then in a
rest area — but no more. From now on, I’ll do my napping
in a Walmart’s parking lot or some such. Maybe they
ought to change the name form “rest area” to “rest,
but don’t go to sleep, area.”

Indicators to look for:

  1. Fuzz busters, scanners,
    and radios if not visible from exterior
  2. Road maps or atlas
    a. Check for marked route of travel

I guess I will chunk all those nice maps Exxon sent
me with the route to Brandon, Missouri marked in Day-glow
pink. No sense in agitating the law when you don’t really
need them anyway.

  1. Newspapers indicating where
    she/he has been
  2. Tissues – boxed, or signs or exceptional

we are in the clear there. We just use a roll of toilet
paper. A lot cheaper and maybe even softer.

  1. Duct Tape – (very common)
    – Fiberglass material
    a. White and gray most common found

they are getting mighty close to home on that one. My
old pickem-up is held together with duct tape and baling
wire. I guess I will start using that shiny stuff, tho
it is a whole lot more expensive. But the law is the
law. . .

    1. One or two screwdrivers or isolated wrench laying
      on floor or in glove box

just a minute on that one! I got $300 worth of wrenches
scattered around my pickup. But mostly in the back hidden
under a stack of beer cans and used transmission parts.
Hope that is all right.

  1. Aerosol cans
    a. Check for reverse threading
  2. Thermos bottles – can indicate travel as
    well as be concealed compartment
  3. Obvious odor of perfume, deodorizer, or talcum
    a. Odor of ether or cedar shavings
  4. Strong odor of fresh ground coffee

I like my fresh coffee in the morning but I guess I
can forego it if I’m driving. Nothing said about beer
— guess I’ll just have one of those if I start getting

  1. Odor of burnt or raw marijuana
  2. Roaches in ashtray or residue on roach clips

don’t need to worry about that with me and my friends.
Just like old Merle sang about in “Okie from Muskogee,"
if we won’t to get drunk and rowdy we will do it with
whiskey and beer — but we leave that dope alone. I always
try to follow the examples of the leaders of our country
on things like that.

  1. Spare tire in back seat
  2. Little or no luggage
    a. Hard, air tight such as Samsonite
    [Note 2]

They are getting mighty picky there. We’ve had this
Samsonite suit case for 40 years and we ain’t about
to get rid of it now. Besides, it ain’t so air tight
any more what with one hinge busted and a dent in the

  1. Signs of extensive travel
    such as carton of cigarettes or other items from
    out of the area
    a. Fast food bags
    b. Tax stamp on cigarettes
    c. Motel, gas receipts

can see that me and the ole lady have got a lot of cleaning
up to do in both our vehicles. I probably still got
the first MacDonald’s styrofoam tray from the first
meal I ever bought (that was back before they discovered
that stuff will kill you) still under the seats somewhere.
Besides, if your traveling, seems it would be a little
difficult not to have some things in your car “from
out of the area.”

is the rest of the things that decent people are not
likely to have in their car, I reckon. I really don’t
know what the problem is with souvenirs and citrus fruit,
but then I’m not an expert on criminal behavior by a
long shot.

  1. High mileage on new car
  2. Service stickers
  3. Papers with flight numbers, boat names, bus routes,
  4. Address books or phone number lists
  5. Business cards
  6. Fireworks or souvenirs
  7. Citrus fruit
  8. One key in ignition or trunk key missing from
    key ring
  9. Pagers in vehicle or on driver

a lot more in the article about suspicious things that
drug couriers like to have but I won’t bore you with
most of it. However there are just a few more that might
not be obvious to you that I will list as a public service:

from the driver and/or passenger:

  1. Driver exits the vehicle rapidly and comes back
    to the patrol car
  2. Often gives signs of fertile behavior or nervousness
  3. Many times are or have resided in the Miami area
  4. What does a courier look like?
    a. Usually between 20-40 years old, average age
    b. Many unemployed
    c. Many don’t fit the vehicle
    d. Unshaved appearance
    e. Two man teams are common – women and women
    with children also used
    f. Many are immigrants:
       1) Cuba
       2) Mexico
       3) Colombians
       4) Some Pakistani’s involved
    in heroin
       5) Immigrants from El Salvador
    and Nicaragua starting to get involved to fund

“Profile” is a bad term to use when referring to your
observations of vehicle, driver and contents. Use

with suspect is very important. If you feel you may
ask for a consent search keep your conversation casual
and non-aggressive.

the word “indicators” is a better word — more syllables,
for one.

there is nothing wrong with a cop being friendly –
a lot easier than filling out all that paper work to
get a warrant!

hope this article will be useful to you. No one likes
their travel plans messed up because they got “detained”
by the law just because they got a good deal on some
Samsonite luggage down at Walmarts. If you will carefully
take note of the above “indicators of a drug courier”
and make sure you don’t even come close to matching
those “indicators” (hmm — I’m beginning to thing “profile”
is a better word), then you are not likely to have trouble
with the law who is just doing his duty and … well,
maybe picking
up a few high-ticket goodies for the department


  1. The “K-9
    site contains several other law
    enforcement jewels: LEGAL
    and more. To see the complete list, go to “POLICE
    and click on the top, right,
    K-9 emblem.

  2. According to Becton in “The Drug Courier Profile”
    paper quoted above, American Tourister luggage is
    the one that is a sure indicator that the owner
    is a drug courier. Why this discrepancy, I do not

2, 2001

Felkins is a retired Engineer, Army officer and former
teacher of Computer Systems. He now maintains a web
page on Political Philosophy, "A
Rational Life
", and another on the history
of politics, "Political

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