Aides defend BWI search More drugs entering U.S. through airport, Customs officials say

October 03, 1997|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

U.S. Customs officials unapologetically defend their policy of energetically questioning and searching more travelers, because, they say, more drugs are coming in and more money is going out of the country through Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

"It's a very potent tool, it's a tool you have to use very judiciously, and we do," said Jeff Casey, a special agent at the U.S. Customs Office of Investigations, in the wake of an incident last week in which agents stopped a reggae artist flying into BWI from Jamaica to promote a new album.

Musician Peter Jackson was detained for more than three hours, stripped and cavity-searched him and x-rayed at a local hospital.

While he was an innocent flier bringing nothing worse into Maryland than some vitamins -- which the agents crushed looking for drugs -- most people treated the way he was are arrested, said Will Somers, a Customs supervisor at BWI.

"The more intrusive the search, the better our batting average," Somers said.

He said about three travelers a month are put through the same ordeal as Jackson at BWI.

Agents have become more forceful in response to an increasing number of drug arrests at the fast-growing airport in Anne Arundel County. While those arrests had numbered between 20 and 30 for several years, Customs supervisor Dolores Norris said there have been 40 arrests at BWI in the past 11 months. They have led to 21 arrests in cities from which drugs were being transported to Baltimore, including Miami, Newark, N.J., and Philadelphia.

Inspectors also have arrested 15 people suspected of carrying drug money attempting to leave the country through BWI in the past 10 months, Norris said. That is three times the number of arrests made in all of last year.

"I think our inspectors are learning a lot," Norris said. "And I think the more experience you get, it breeds more seizures.

"We're just trying to do a better job with the hundreds and thousands of passengers we get every year," she said. "I'm always very concerned with their rights, that they are treated with courtesy and respect."

Officials at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union are not so sure and worry that Customs agents are targeting African-American and other minority passengers.

Dwight Sullivan, staff counsel for the ACLU's Baltimore office, is investigating complaints from three African-Americans who said they felt they were targeted at BWI because they fitted a Customs "profile" of what a drug smuggler looks like.

Most smugglers arrested at BWI are Americans and not foreigners, said Casey. He said the recent trend has been for trafficking rings to hire African-Americans from the Baltimore-Washington area to carry drugs into the United States.

Casey said that inspectors don't target people -- they target flights from countries they consider "high risk."

Flights from Jamaica, for example, are monitored heavily because it often is a source for marijuana and a transit through which cocaine passes into the United States, he said.

Casey said investigations show that the number of drug arrests at BWI have risen because many Jamaican drug gangs that used to be based largely in Miami and New York have been expanding in the Baltimore and Washington areas.

"From what we're finding, we know there's a definite threat there," Casey said. "And if we know a threat exists, we're more vigilant in examining customers."

This worries Sullivan, and he expressed concern at the power of Customs inspectors. They are authorized to stop and search people at borders as long as they have "reasonable cause to suspect there is merchandise which was imported contrary to law."

"As a society, we want our law enforcement officers to be somewhat zealous, and that works great if there is appropriate control," Sullivan said. "Before that zealous police officer can kick in your door, they need to go to a judge and say, 'This is why we need to do this,' before they have the right to. But that does not apply at the border, and that's what the real concern is.

"Perhaps Congress should look at this the same way they've been looking at the IRS recently," he said.

Pub Date: 10/03/97

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