They come in all shapes and sizes, but their behavior often betrays them

December 05, 1993|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Staff Writer

The courier with the cocaine just might be that young mother balancing a baby on her knee on the southbound train. Or the guy in the business suit, keeping carefully to the speed limit as he drives down Interstate 95. Or the kid playing the Game-boy aboard the New York-to-Baltimore bus.

So how do the police catch the couriers?

Surprisingly, police say, relatively few Baltimore-bound drug smugglers are caught on the basis of tips from informants. Far more often, state troopers or police detectives pick out someone who is behaving suspiciously, confront them -- and watch them give themselves away with lies, contradictions, or outright confessions.

"You know the feeling you get when a police car pulls up behind you with its light flashing?" says Capt. Michael J. Andrew, chief of the drug enforcement section of the Baltimore Police Department.

Imagine, he says, how a courier with a kilo of cocaine in her handbag feels when a detective says hello. "It's almost like a polygraph," Captain Andrew says. "You wouldn't believe how people react."

The trick, then, is knowing whom to approach.

In recent years, courts have taken a dim view of police stopping a suspected drug courier because he or she fits a certain "profile" -- a long-haired white man, a young black man in a fancy car, a woman wearing lots of jewelry, and so on. Instead, to detain a suspect, police must have "reasonable suspicion" of wrongdoing based on the suspect's behavior, says Barbara Mello, professor of law at the University of Baltimore.

Drug interdiction detectives insist they work exclusively on the basis of suspicious behavior, not on travelers' characteristics.

"It's not race. It's not wearing a lot of gold. It's action," says Sgt. Norman E. Meads, who supervises the Baltimore police drug interdiction unit.

Police accounts of courier arrests at and near Maryland bus and train stations show that a wide range of behavior can be interpreted as "suspicious": walking fast, or walking hesitantly; gazing around as if looking for a companion, or avoiding eye contact with passers-by; carrying no bags, or carrying several bags.

But police officers say there's no contradiction in such reports because, in a given situation, all kinds of behavior can appear suspicious. Picking out couriers from a crowd is an art developed with experience, Sergeant Meads says, and the proof is in his unit's results. Of all the bus and train travelers approached by interdiction-squad detectives, he says, a substantial majority are carrying drugs, though no statistics are kept.

Some defense attorneys are skeptical. "I think too many innocent people are approached," says Lawrence B. Rosenberg, a Baltimore defense attorney for 10 years.

Drug dealers trying to move their wares down the East Coast engage in a constant cat-and-mouse game with police, varying couriers' transportation, dress, gender, race and age.

They also hide the drugs in an endless variety of places. In Baltimore, police have found drugs in a baby's dirty diaper; under the chocolate powder in a seemingly unopened container of Nestle's Quik in a bag of groceries; and in the middle of a heat-sealed bag of popcorn.

Racquel Carter, 22, who made numerous drug runs to New York before her 1992 arrest, traveled on various occasions by car, train and bus. Ms. Carter made a living off her courier runs and became deeply enmeshed in the drug trade.

She preferred to use cars when she could borrow one: "In a car, you can always take a back road. Once you're on the bus, you're on the bus to stay." When she had to take the bus, she would routinely switch destinations, getting off at Aberdeen or Washington instead of Baltimore.

On the highway, she said, the New Jersey Turnpike has a reputation with drug couriers for aggressive policing. Once, she said, she was stopped when she had several hundred $10 vials of cocaine in one thigh-high boot and numerous $25 bags of marijuana in the other.

The troopers, a man and a woman, ordered her to dump her boots out on the shoulder of the highway. Then, rather than confiscate the drugs and make an arrest, they ordered her to stomp on the vials and rip open the bags, letting passing traffic scatter the drugs to the winds.

"For them, it wasn't worth the paperwork," Ms. Carter says.

Eventually, Ms. Carter's luck ran out. But no one -- certainly not the police -- believes that locking up couriers is the answer to stopping the drug trade. Despite what Baltimore police consider striking success at interdiction, they estimate that they stop less than 10 percent of the drugs headed for Baltimore.

Still, individual confiscations can have significance, Captain Andrew says. Police arrested a 59-year-old New York woman last year with more than 1 pound of fentanyl, a deadly heroin substitute blamed for 30 deaths in Baltimore in 1992. "We've had 6,000-bag seizures of heroin, and that's 6,000 doses that aren't reaching the street," he says.

Moreover, police and prosecutors maintain that an aggressive interdiction program can deter dealers from bringing in even more drugs and on occasion lead to major drug rings.

"You have to look at interdiction from the point of view of the intelligence you get, on trends, patterns, sources of supply, activity locally, corroborative leads," says Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms. "You have to look at it as part of a larger effort."

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