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Amtrak’s Suspicious Activity Reporting Guidelines & the White Privilege of Freedom of Travel

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) obtained a copy of guidelines for Amtrak customer service employees in Texas. The organization received it as a result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which it filed because individuals have been submitted reports indicating they were “wrongfully searched and arrested on Amtrak trains.” The company may also be using suspicious activity guidelines to target individuals in a civil asset forfeiture program.

Presumably, the guidelines are universally applied and utilized at various Amtrak train stations throughout the United States. The guidelines obtained are specifically for employees in Texas in the “southwest division.” But none of the guidelines are specific to Texas.

“Ticket Agents may come into contact with passengers and travelers whose conduct is questionable. Some individuals can have characteristics that may or may not be indicative of criminal activity, such as illegal drug trafficking,” the guidelines state [PDF]. “When taken alone certain characteristics are not illegal per se, however, one or more may form the basis for suspicious criminal activity.”

First off, the guidelines are contradictory. “Taken alone certain characteristics are not illegal per se.” Okay, agree. But, “one or…” Wait, but the guidelines say “alone certain characteristics are not illegal”?

Does an employee need to have witnessed more than one “characteristic” to report “suspicious activity” to the Amtrak Police and Security Department? (Of course, who wants to be the employee that took a chance and did not report the behavior?)

The list of “characteristics” to watch for include:

• Evasive path through train station

• Carrying little or no luggage

• Last minute reservation

• Traveling by an unusual itinerary (multi-changes in reservations)

• Carrying an unusually large amount of currency

• Purchase of tickets in cash

• Purchase tickets immediately prior to boarding

• Unusual nervousness of traveler

• Unusual calmness or straight ahead stare

• Looking around while making telephone call(s)

• Position among passengers disembarking (ahead of, or lagging behind passengers)

If a passenger is looking around while making telephone call(s) and happen to be unusually nervous, perhaps, that passenger is waiting for someone who is expected to join them on the trip. He or she is late, and the passenger is worried because the train is leaving the station soon.

If a passenger purchases tickets with cash immediately prior to boarding, it is likely the person has a busy work life like many Americans and did not get around to purchasing their ticket beforehand. They are using cash because they happen to have cash on them.

If they make a last minute reservation, have little to no luggage and only pay in cash, it is possible the passenger is poor. Maybe, the passenger is even homeless and managed to screw up some cash and is now trying to get somewhere they have been trying to go for a long time. [cont’d.]

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."