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

Since 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.”

This 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).

Profiles 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 Lynch).

While 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.

What 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.

Drug Courier Profile Indicators

This document, DRUG COURIER PROFILE INDICATORS [Note 1], 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 citizens.

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

direct quotes

The first sentence of the article is a small warning concerning terminology:

In 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.

So, 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.

Let us continue with the authors introduction:

Stopping 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. Once 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.

Well 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.”

What 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.

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

Let us continue.

Indicators 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.

The 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.

OK, we are finally getting to the juicy parts.

Exterior 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.

Now 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.

Well 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.

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

The 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.

DEA 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. . . .

1. 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. . . .

2. 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.

3. 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. . . .

4. 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. . . .

6. 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..” . .

7. 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

Well, 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?

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

  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

Good 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

Now 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.”

Interior 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

Well 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 use

Well 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

Hey, 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

Wait 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 powder a. Odor of ether or cedar shavings
  4. Strong odor of fresh ground coffee

Well 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 sleepy.

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

They 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]

Whoa! 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 side.

  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

I 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.”

Here 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, etc.
  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

There’s 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:

Indicators 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 32 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 weapons

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

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

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

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

I 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 WORLD OF DOGS” site contains several other law enforcement jewels: LEGAL POINTS AND CASE LAW, TRAFFIC STOPS, CONTRABAND SEIZURE AND FORFEITURE STATE OF OHIO, FEDERAL ASSET AND FORFEITURE U. S. DRUG ENFORCEMENT (DEA), and more. To see the complete list, go to “POLICE K-9 INFORMATION” 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 know.

May 2, 2001

Leon 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 Almanac."