The Kentucky waitress who took a job delivering ten pounds of crystal meth in a suitcase in exchange for $1,000 had little clue that Special Agent Jarrell Perry would be waiting for her, preparing to board the Greyhound bus halfway through her trip.
For the past decade, Perry, a veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), has made the bus and train depot in Albuquerque his stake-out spot. He meets “approximately twenty buses every week,” according to federal prosecutors.
He technically doesn’t have an office at the Greyhound bus station, though perhaps he should. “He has a key to a conference room at the station,” a federal district judge mentioned last year in one of numerous drug cases that Perry has brought to trial.
Perry targets certain Greyhound and Amtrak routes because he knows that people trafficking drugs are trying to “avoid scrutiny of the Transportation Security Administration,” federal prosecutors say, or the intense security that passengers have come to expect on air travel.
After an hour-long layover, the waitress named Ollisha Easley reboarded the bus with other passengers in 2016. Perry, dressed in plain clothes, made his way down the aisle, quizzing people about their travel plans.
The passengers didn’t know that Perry had been provided a passenger “manifest” ahead of time listing everyone who was on the bus that day, where they were headed, and whether they paid Greyhound via cash or credit card. He also had a chance during the layover to open the luggage bin and study their checked bags.
Allowing law enforcement onboard
As a private company, Greyhound is under no obligation to let cops on its buses without a warrant, legal experts say, but that doesn’t appear to be a problem. In Albuquerque and elsewhere, Greyhound has been a loyal partner in helping law enforcement bust its own customers.
“Cops routinely board Greyhound buses and ask passengers to search their luggage,” Theshia Naidoo, a legal director with the Drug Policy Alliance, tells ConsumerAffairs. “If a person consents to the search, there is no fourth amendment protections relating to the search.”
The company’s practice of letting law enforcement aboard is decades-old, but it’s poorly understood by riders, defense attorneys argue, and may be growing more common as federal agents step up immigration raids.
In January, Customs Border Patrol (CBP) agents reportedly boarded a Greyhound bus in Fort Lauderdale to conduct what they claimed was a “routine inspection.” Cell phone footage shows the officers taking one woman off the bus. News reports described her as a Jamaican grandmother who they said had overstayed her visa.
More recently, on June 7, a beauty salon owner named Tiana Smalls wrote a viral Facebook post describing her Greyhound ride from Bakersfield, California to Las Vegas, Nevada. At the state lane, Smalls says the bus driver announced: “We are being boarded by Border Patrol. Please be prepared to show your documentation upon request.”
Border Patrol has broad power to question people located within 100 miles of the United States border, but Smalls knew that Las Vegas falls safely outside of that zone. Thinking quickly, she said she warned passengers in English and Spanish not to talk to the officers and to invoke the Fourth Amendment, or the constitutional amendment that is supposed to protect people from unreasonable police searches.
“I'm not driving this bus, so you have NO RIGHT to ask me for anything! And the rest of you guys don't have to show them anything, either!,” she says she yelled at the Border Patrol agents, causing them to allegedly retreat. (Border Patrol’s press office in Yuma, CA disputed her story).
Greyhound claims it has no choice
Regardless of whether a bus is within 100 miles of a border, Greyhound, being a private company, still does not have to allow Border Patrol agents inside, according the ACLU. The group says that it has documented recent reports of Border Patrol agents questioning Greyhound passengers in Vermont, California, Washington, Arizona, and Michigan.
A Border Patrol spokesman tells ConsumerAffairs that the agency has been using “transportation hubs” to search for “alien smuggling and drug trafficking organizations” for decades, threats that he claims are on the rise.
“To combat these growing threats, the U.S. Border Patrol has increased the frequency of transportation checks around the country,” the spokesman said via email, though he denies that the agency receives passenger lists from Greyhound ahead of time, as the DEA apparently does.
Regardless, in an open letter published in late March, the ACLU urged Greyhound to stop allowing immigration officials on buses. However, the company claims it has no choice but to allow Border Patrol inside.
“While we are required to comply with the law by allowing Border Patrol agents to board our buses when they ask to do so,” a Greyhound spokesman tells ConsumerAffairs via email, “we do not support or coordinate these searches, nor are we happy about them.”
Yet if Greyhound is aware and unhappy about these searches, it can be hard to tell. Passengers receive little warning on the Greyhound website that they could be asked to reveal the contents of their luggage or show proof of their citizenship.
On the Greyhound website, Greyhound’s “Rules & Regulations” page declares at the top that “WE HAVE NO ROOM FOR DISCRIMINATION.”
“We just want to get you safely to your destination,” the site says. “If your English is limited…that's ok!” Greyhound assures riders later on.
The Greyhound spokesman did not respond to follow-up questions asking about Greyhound’s relationship with other law enforcement agencies or its warnings to passengers.
Inspecting bags and scrutinizing passengers
The DEA’s press office told ConsumerAffairs that it was declining to answer questions about the agency’s relationship with Greyhound.
But Perry, the DEA agent in Albuquerque, often uses information that he obtains from the passenger manifest to make arrests, according to his arrest reports. The passenger manifest, or a list of passengers, is provided to him via a “confidential source,” according to testimony he gave in June of 2016.
According to public records, Greyhound’s passenger manifest is normally only made available to the bus drivers and company personnel.
These lists reveal passengers’ names and travel destinations, or sometimes more. For Ollisha Easley, the waitress trying to transport a bag across the country to support her family, (she argued in court that she did not know what was inside), the passenger list showed that she and another woman paid cash under the same reservation.
“Their tickets had been paid for in cash and, according to the passenger list, both women had one piece of checked luggage, that is, luggage traveling in the cargo area of the bus,” the resulting criminal case says.
During the Albuquerque layover, passengers disembarked so the bus could be washed. With the passengers out-of-sight, Perry opened the luggage bin and found bags labeled with both womens’ names. He made a mental note of them.
“I looked at it inside of the wash bay, and then after the bus had pulled up to the -- where the passengers re-board, I observed the luggage underneath the bus again,” he later testified in court.
Though Perry denies doing so in this case, it’s reportedly not uncommon for him to squeeze and smell passengers’ bags during layovers, when passengers are not on the bus.
“His customary procedure is to look at bags and name tags and sometimes sniff bags,” federal judges have repeatedly acknowledged in his cases. Prosecutors have argued in court that Perry and other agents working his cases are within their rights to touch and smell the bags without the owners present, so as long as they don’t open them.
When passengers returned after the bus layover that day, the DEA agent questioned Easley about her travel plans and she told him she was traveling alone. The other woman she booked the trip with was nowhere to be found. Determining that the second bag was abandoned, Perry opened it and found four kilograms of meth inside.
These types of federal drug busts only serve to target low-level offenders who are in “desperate need to make a fast buck,” according Brian Pori, an attorney with the federal public defender's office in Albuquerque, who represents Easley and others caught by Perry.
“People aren't even subject to same level of searches on planes,” he argues.
Consensual encounters and citing terrorism
Tim Perry, a musician who works at Pizza Hut (no relation to the DEA agent), happened to learn about the Fourth Amendment and probable cause laws by studying up on the issue as a hobby, after getting arrested several times.
Armed with this knowledge, Perry was traveling to Arkansas on a Greyhound bus in April 2017, when, he tells ConsumerAffairs, the bus pulled off in a small town in Texas. It would be the last smoke break for 600 miles. Suddenly, officers with the Hopkins County Sheriff’s Department boarded and asked to search his luggage.
“You can say no, but we appreciate your cooperation,” he recalls the officers saying. Perry says that he and five other passengers refused. The officers ordered the group off the bus and brought out drug canines. Perry began recording the search.
"We're doing what you call a consensual encounter. You understand what a consensual encounter is?" the Hopkins County Sheriff’s deputy officer says in the recording. "We don't board the bus in uniforms. We board the bus in plain clothes. We're not displaying weapons. We only display badges when we make contact with you.”
Perry responds that the officers are wasting everyone’s time. The officer acts taken aback.
“I’ve probably seized drug money, over four million dollars off of Greyhound buses in my career, in the last 19 years,” the deputy says. The Hopkins County Sheriff’s office did not return messages left by ConsumerAffairs.
“It’s for your safety,” the deputy adds in the recording. “Nine-eleven created a lot of it. Nine-eleven.You understand?"
Over one year later, Perry says he still does not understand how September 11, 2001 could possibly relate to people riding a Greyhound bus from Colorado to Arkansas. “When have you ever heard of a terrorist talking about attacking a Greyhound bus?” he asks.