Use of ‘Drug Profile’ in Arrests OKd : Agents Can Detain Suspicious-Appearing People, Justices Rule
The Supreme Court, giving the government another victory in the war on drugs, ruled today that drug agents may stop and detain airline passengers who match a “drug courier profile.”
If a passenger is carrying a large wad of cash, flying from a drug trafficking center such as Miami and traveling under an assumed name, drug agents are justified in stopping him for questioning and for examining his bags, the high court said.
The ruling overturns a federal appeals court in California, which said government agents cannot stop passengers just because they may look like criminals.
By a 7-2 vote, the court ordered the reinstatement of a drug possession conviction of a man carrying 1,000 grams of cocaine when he was stopped by authorities at the Honolulu airport.
The suspect, Andrew Sokolow, matched a so-called “profile” that drug enforcement agents use to identify drug couriers.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for the court, said there were sufficient factors to lead agents to reasonably suspect that Sokolow was engaged in criminal activity.
Victory for Justice Dept.
“The fact that these factors may be set forth in a ‘profile’ does not somehow detract from their evidentiary significance as seen by a trained agent,” Rehnquist said.
The ruling is a victory for the Justice Department, which said a decision that threw out Sokolow’s conviction could severely hamper the fight against narcotics.
Sokolow was stopped by agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration on July 25, 1984, as he returned to Hawaii from a trip to Miami.
Authorities said he aroused their suspicions three days earlier when he and a female companion departed from Honolulu airport for Miami.
They said Sokolow, who appeared to be in his mid-20s, bought his plane tickets with $2,100 in cash taken from a roll of money that appeared to contain more than $4,000. He was wearing a black jumpsuit and a great deal of gold jewelry, he appeared nervous, and he and the woman with him carried four handbags on the plane without checking any luggage.
The agents also suspected that he was using an alias because the name he gave the ticket agent was not the same as the name listed for the telephone number he gave the agent.
Sokolow’s behavior, dress and demeanor fit the profile of a drug courier, narcotics agents said.
Sokolow pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and was sentenced to five years in prison. He appealed the conviction on the grounds that the cocaine should have been suppressed as evidence because authorities violated his constitutional rights against unlawful search and seizure when they stopped him upon his return to Honolulu.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the conviction, ruling that suspicion of a crime “cannot be intuited from a hodgepodge assembly of factors about individual character.”
But the Supreme Court today said the accumulation of factors weighed by the agents was enough to permit them to question Sokolow.