Traveling on a Known Drug Corridor: Who Knew?

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Tuesday, June 5th, 2018
Traveling on a Known Drug Corridor: Who Knew?

Assume that you are a hard-working drug courier just trying to make an illegal living. You have been hired to haul a load of merchandise from Harlingen to Dallas, or El Paso to Longview. You have taken all possible precautions to prevent being stopped by law enforcement and having your cargo seized: 1) You are not using a rental car; 2) you made sure the turn indicators, as well as all of the other lights on the vehicle, work correctly; 3) there are no fast food wrappers strewn about the inside of your car; 4) you removed all air fresheners and religious symbols from your mirror; 5) you have practiced your deep-breathing exercises so that if you get stopped, you won’t appear too nervous; and 6) you are wearing a high-neck shirt so the throbbing vein in your neck cannot be seen.

Despite all your preparations, you are pulled over for [fill in the traffic violation de jour]. While the officer approaches the car, you silently chant your mantra and pull your collar up. Although you are courteous, make eye contact (but not too much), have all your documents in order, and answer all the officer’s questions (while making sure your answers don’t seem too pat), the officer insists on searching your vehicle. Of course, you refuse, so the dreaded drug dog is called in to sniff around. The dog allegedly alerts by sitting or squatting or wagging its tail or panting or peeing on the tire. Your merchandise is ultimately seized, and you are arrested.

After reviewing the incident report, you discover one of the factors the officer relied upon to prolong the stop was the fact that you were “traveling a known drug corridor.” Your first reaction might understandably be, “What the heck is a ‘known drug corridor?’” This article will attempt to answer that question.

What Is a Drug Corridor?

That’s a good question. Absent a more trustworthy source, a workable definition can be located on Wikipedia. There, a drug corridor is defined as “the name given to various paths in the U.S., generally being coterminal with major highways and interstates, that are major highways for the flow of illicit drugs into, out of, and across the U.S.”1 The concept appears in case law under various monikers, including “drug corridor,” “drug thoroughfare,” and “drug avenue.” Regardless of which name is used, it is frequently cited by law enforcement as a factor to support reasonable suspicion for prolonging a traffic stop.

Where Did the Term Come From? Possibly, Operation Pipeline (1984)

In case law and other sources, the origin of the phrase is not readily explained.2 It simply appeared in one case, and as time went by, it gradually started popping up more and more frequently. The Drug Enforcement Administration is the most likely source, where one of the earliest references to the term was located on the DEA website in the section containing a history of the DEA, 1980 to 1985.3 As explained in that history, “Operation Pipeline” was created in response to an increase of drug arrests following traffic stops.

As drug traffickers established their networks within U.S. borders, they began to rely heavily on the highway system to move their wares from entry points to distribution hubs around the country. Beginning in the early 1980s, New Mexico state troopers grew suspicious when they noticed a sharp increase in the number of motor vehicle violations that resulted in drug seizures and arrests. At the same time, and unknown to the troopers in New Mexico, troopers in New Jersey began making similar seizures during highway stops along the Interstate 95 “drug corridor” from Florida to the Northeast.4

The success of the highway interdiction programs in New Jersey and New Mexico led to the creation of Operation Pipeline. This DEA-funded training program featured state police and highway patrol officers with expertise in highway interdiction who provided training to other officers throughout the country.5

Therefore, we probably have the DEA, and its ongoing training, to thank for the phrase and its increased use.

First Appearance in Case Law

In state court decisions, the earliest appearance of “drug corridor” (or a variation thereof) was in a concurring opinion of a 1989 Georgia state court decision.6 In that case, a trooper saw a Dodge van “travel approximately 40 yards some 2 to 3 feet inside the emergency lane.”7 The defendant was detained for suspicion of DUI ,and the trooper searched the van “in order to find evidence such as cans or bottles that would indicate whether appellee had been drinking.”8 Instead of cans or bottles, the officer found 18 individually wrapped kilogram packages of cocaine, hidden behind a piece of loose interior molding.9 The court affirmed the suppression of the evidence, finding the trooper was “taking action, unrelated to the objectives of the authorized intrusion, which exposed to view concealed portions of the [van] or its contents, [and thereby] did produce a new invasion of [appellee’s] privacy unjustified by the exigent circumstance that validated the [search incident to a lawful arrest].”10

The concurring judge called for a drug-sniffing dog in every patrol car, and referenced “drug corridor” in the process:

The investigating officer needs a practical solution to the problem identified by Justice Scalia—an effective means, short of an unconstitutional search, to investigate suspicious circumstances. The United States Supreme Court has held that exposure of personal effects located in a public place to a trained canine does not constitute a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696, 103 S. Ct. 2637, 77 L. Ed.2d 110 (1983). Thus, the solution I propose is that a drug-sniffing dog accompany each officer patrolling a highway known to be a drug corridor. The positive reaction of a drug-sniffing dog would have provided the probable cause necessary in this case to search areas of the vehicle not otherwise subject to a search incident to the lawful arrest of the driver.11

The first reference to a drug corridor in federal case law was a 1988 New Jersey District Court forfeiture case.12 The defendant and two other individuals were driving on U.S. Route 40 in Carneys Point Township, Salem County, New Jersey. Their car was stopped by a New Jersey trooper for speeding. The trooper testified that the driver was “extremely nervous and breathing irregularly.” The trooper performed a pat down of the driver for weapons, but instead found several hard objects in the driver’s jacket pocket that turned out to be rolls of currency wrapped and bound by rubber bands. The trooper also found two small bags containing what appeared to be marijuana, which the driver grabbed away from the trooper and then attempted to flee from the scene. He and the passengers were ultimately arrested and $32,310 was found after the vehicle was searched. At a later interview, all three individuals claimed that the money belonged to the passengers and “represented many years of savings; and, the money was to be used to buy into a business or restaurant in the Rhode Island/Massachusetts area.”13

At a forfeiture hearing, the district court found the stop legal and also found that the trooper’s suspicions were aroused by, among other things, the fact that “the stop occurred at an area known as a major ‘drug corridor’ where the officer himself had made about 400 arrests in connection with drug trafficking.”14 The decision further stated that the stop occurred “on Route 40, colloquially referred to as ‘cocaine alley,’ which both [troopers] testified is a known drug corridor.15

Fifth Circuit and Texas Cases

Moving closer to home, the first mention of a drug corridor appearing in a Fifth Circuit decision was United States v. Powell.16 There, a Texas state trooper was patrolling Interstate 45 near Centerville, in Leon County, Texas. Of interest, at least regarding the subject of this article, the trooper never mentioned that the defendant was traveling on a known drug corridor. The evidence showed that he stopped the defendant for speeding, and as he approached the vehicle, he noticed that the driver’s window was rolled down a few inches. When asked to roll it down further, the driver replied that it was broken. After asking for and receiving consent to search the car, the trooper found cocaine in the driver’s door. The defendant was convicted of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.17

The defendant argued on appeal that his motion to suppress should have been granted because the stop was unreasonably prolonged, relying on United States v. Santiago, 310 F.3d 336 (5th Cir. 2002) and United States v. Jones, 234 F.3d 234 (5th Cir. 2000).18 The Fifth Circuit found both cases distinguishable, in part because “the highway on which [Santiago] traveled was not deemed a major drug corridor” and “Jones was not traveling on a known drug corridor.19 The highway in Santiago was Interstate 20 in Bossier Parish, Louisiana.20 In Jones, the exact location was not disclosed—the decision merely stated that the car was stopped “just inside the city limits of Amarillo, Texas,” and the defendants were traveling from California to Memphis, Tennessee.21 The appeals court in Powell implicitly found that I-45, near Centerville, was a drug corridor, but offered no hint as to how or when the highway qualified as such.

The winner for first-mention-in-Texas decisions appears to be Adams v. State.22 On July 30, 1998, a deputy sheriff stopped a red Ford Taurus for driving on the shoulder of Highway 59. The case was tried in Polk County, Texas, so although not specifically mentioned, it is assumed that the relevant portion of Highway 59 was in Polk County. The deputy encountered three individuals in the car, and he questioned each one of them. Several factors led the deputy to “believe that a crime was being committed: The Taurus was a rental car, the driver was not named on the car rental agreement, the occupants were returning to Lufkin after a ‘turnaround trip’ to Houston, and the occupants were nervous, evasive, and gave conflicting stories regarding their recent travels.”23 In a footnote, the court explained that the deputy “described a ‘turnaround trip’ as a quick trip, usually overnight, to a major drug-supplying city to purchase narcotics and take them to another city to sell them. He characterized Houston as a major drug source and Highway 59 as a major drug thoroughfare.Id. at n. 3. Again, there was no explanation as to how or when Highway 59 achieved the “major drug thoroughfare” status.

Does Traveling on a Known Drug Corridor Really Mean Anything?

In the beginning, courts seemed to take testimony regarding traveling on a drug corridor as meaningful, especially when combined with other factors. For instance, in Williams v. State,24 a 2003 decision, the defendant was stopped for speeding on I-30 in Rockwall County (northeast of Dallas). The trooper testified that he knew I-30 “to be a major drug trafficking thoroughfare.” The trooper also noticed that the defendant was “extremely nervous, spoke softly in a monotone voice, and would not make eye contact.”25 In addition, the defendant was unable to produce valid proof of insurance. When the trooper asked whether there were any guns, knives, hand grenades, dead bodies, or drugs in the vehicle, the defendant said “no” and then laughed, which made the officer believe something illegal might be in the vehicle.26 The officer then asked if there were any drugs in the car, which the defendant answered, “No, sir.” After receiving con­sent to search the car, the trooper found three pounds of mari­juana in the trunk.

In affirming the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress, the Dallas court cited the following evidence in support of reasonable suspicion: nervous behavior, lack of eye contact, previous arrest for unlawfully carrying a weapon, trooper’s knowledge “that Interstate 30 was a favorite thoroughfare among drug traffickers, and, in his experience, appellant’s laughter in response to the question about whether he possessed anything illegal was generally indicative of someone found to have contraband in their possession.”27 The evidence regarding I-30 being a “favorite thoroughfare among drug traffickers” appeared to be taken at face value and without question.

Courts Have Begun to Question the Relevance of a Drug Corridor

In 2008, the Texarkana Court of Appeals issued two decisions on the same day, where it considered the forfeiture of currency.28 For the first time, a court questioned the relevance and weight of evidence regarding traveling on a drug corridor. In $130,500 v. State, a trooper stopped a Dodge truck for speeding while traveling west on Interstate 30 in east Texas. Inside the truck were the defendant, two other adults, two children, and some luggage. After getting consent to search the truck, the trooper found $130,510.00, packaged with rubber bands and shrink-wrap. Later, at the DPS station, after the money had been removed from the wrappings, some of the wrappings were put beneath a “non-contaminated” trash can, and a drug dog alerted at the bottom of the can where the wrappings were. DPS claimed that the dog alert meant the money had “probably” been contaminated with a controlled substance and filed forfeiture proceedings.29

At a subsequent hearing, the trooper testified that I-30 was a drug corridor and that drug dealers use “ready made families” to look like innocent travelers, sometimes even carrying luggage. In response to this testimony, the court noted the following:

While those things are in evidence, we are skeptical that such evidence offers any probative value to support the State’s case. In numerous forfeiture cases, we have seen testimony from various officers that a large number of roads in east Texas are “drug corridors” and no suggestion that any east Texas roads are not drug corridors. We also find it questionable that facts traditionally seen as suggesting innocence become suspicious when the government may be able to confiscate an item of substantial value by recasting such facts.30

The court ultimately determined that while the State’s evidence was “legally sufficient to support the trial court’s judgment of forfeiture,” it also found “the evidence factually insufficient to support it” and remanded for a new trial.31

In 43,774 v. State, the defendant was stopped for following too close while driving through Gregg County, Texas, on his way to Dallas from Mississippi.32 After getting consent to search the vehicle, the officer found approximately $40,000 in two hidden compartments. While testifying at the forfeiture hearing, the officer “opined that typically drugs went east and money went west and stated that he had stopped [the defendant] going westbound on the interstate highway.”33 The trial court ruled in favor of the State for the forfeiture.34

Although the appeals court affirmed the trial court’s decision, the court dismissed as “relatively nonprobative the evidence that the vehicle was being driven in a certain direction and that [the defendant] was nervous.” The court cited Deschenes v. State, 253 S.W.3d 374, 383 nn. 9 & 10 (Tex. App.—Amarillo 2008, pet. ref’d.) (“traveling a particular route does not establish probable cause for forfeiture”).35 The court wrapped up its decision by adding some “additional comments” that included the following:

The fact that a person is driving a vehicle on an interstate highway is virtually meaningless in determining a connection to illegal substances. We realize that narcotics and cash derived from drug transactions are transported by vehicles traveling on the interstate highway or other major highways. But to conclude from that general premise that a particular vehicle driving on that highway is likely to be involved in possessing or selling drugs or has monies derived from it, is simply a fallacy in reasoning and logic. It adds nothing to the quest to determine the issues involved.

Additionally, it may well be true that “drugs travel east and money travels west,” but once again, simply because a vehicle is driven in one direction or the other does not help determine which of all those persons driving those vehicles in such direction is violating the law.36

“Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t”

The Fifth Circuit, in United States v. Madrigal (a non-forfeiture case), had the opportunity to consider whether someone taking a particular route was material to the finding of reasonable suspicion.37 On October 31, 2012, an officer observed the defendant and his wife following another vehicle too closely on Interstate 10, between San Antonio and Houston.38 The defendant explained that he was driving from Reynosa, Mexico, and was traveling to Houston to look at a truck.39 The officer ques­tioned the defendant about why he choose to travel on Interstate 10 rather than Highway 59, and the defendant replied that his friend in Houston told him I-10 was shorter. After checking the defendant’s license, the officer continued to question the defendant but never returned the license and registration during this exchange.

After receiving consent to search the truck, the officer conducted a canine search, but the dog did not alert. The officer then noticed that one of the fuel tanks was disconnected and had tool marks on it. Using a scope, he determined the liquid in the tank had an unusual appearance for diesel. The defendant agreed to follow the officer to the police station, where the search continued. The fuel tank was removed, spilling some of the liquid on the floor and also on the officer’s pants. No drugs were found, and the defendant was allowed to leave. However, the officer later noticed that some of the liquid that had spilled on his pants had crystallized. The substance tested positive for methamphetamine, and the defendant was arrested near Houston. The district court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress.40

The issue on appeal was whether the officer had reasonable suspicion to continue the detention. Among the facts cited to support reasonable suspicion was the defendant’s travel itinerary.41 The government argued that the itinerary was suspicious because, in part: (1) he traveled from a drug source to a drug distribution place; and (2) he traveled on a drug route.42 The Fifth Circuit noted that suspicion could arise from using a drug corridor or avoiding checkpoints unless it created a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.43

Regarding the route taken, the court explained that the defendant’s use of Interstate 10 gave rise to little suspicion. “Interstate 10 like all highways between Mexico and Houston may be used as a drug corridor, but it also is a major thoroughfare for legitimate purposes. The vast majority of traffic on Interstate 10 are law-abiding citizens who are traveling to work, home, or for other legitimate purposes.” Further, the defendant’s choice to avoid Highway 59 also was not inherently suspicious.

The government argues that many drug couriers avoid Highway 59 because it has numerous police checkpoints. Of course this cuts both ways: a driver on a legitimate trip to Houston may also avoid Highway 59 because of the inconvenience and delay of the checkpoints. Finally, if the defendant chose to travel on Highway 59—it would arguably be just as suspicious as Interstate 10, and the mileage is not dramatically different. If the defendant used Highway 59, he would be on a direct drug corridor. Thus a courier is suspected of drug activity whether on Interstate 10 or Highway 59, and accordingly, is “damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t.”44

Based on the evidence, the Fifth Circuit found the case to be “a close call,” but concluded that the officer lacked enough facts to give rise to reasonable suspicion.45 Because the issue of the defendant’s consent was not considered in the trial court, the case was remanded for the district court to determine if the defendant’s consent to search was voluntary and given with free will.46

Again, What Is a Drug Corridor?

According to law enforcement, just about any piece of pavement running north and south or east and west is a drug corridor. Practically any road used by vehicles is a drug corridor. With few exceptions, the only evidence presented in this regard comes from the arresting officer and is typically just the officer stating his opinion. There are rarely any facts backing up the officer’s claim. Instead, the mention of a particular road being a drug corridor is almost always tied to the subject of officer “experience and training.” In other words, the court will point out that the evidence, based on the officer’s experience and training, showed that a particular road was considered to be a known drug corridor, and is to be considered along with all the other factors cited by the officer.47 The accompanying map shows every road in Texas that has been designated as a “drug corridor.”

Traveling on a Known Drug Corridor: Who Knew?-1

What Can Be Done?

What can a defense counsel do to counter the assertion that a road is a known drug corridor? Below are some possible suggestions to employ (if justified by the circumstances):

  • Question the officer regarding how he came to the conclusion a particular route was a drug corridor. Did someone tell him that? If so, who? What part of his training covered drug corridors? Is there an authoritative list that designates certain routes to be drug corridors?
  • Be aware of those “damned if you do; damned if you don’t” scenarios and point them out to the court.
  • In the motion to suppress, cite the “additional comments” language from 43,774 v. State and the finding in United States v. Madrigal, where the courts questioned the probative value of the drug corridor claim.48

While I don’t advocate taking up the drug courier trade, if you do, I suggest supplementing your list of places and things to avoid. First, avoid the routes highlighted on the above map All these roads have been cited in Texas and Fifth Circuit cases as drug corridors! Avoid the interstates. Avoid the main highways. It might take you longer, but enjoy the scenery and ambience of small towns as you travel the backroads of Texas. Don’t forget your turtleneck to hide that tell-all, pulsating artery in your neck. And lastly, avoid responding to a police officer’s attempt at humor, as it just might be probable cause for an arrest.

Notes

1. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drug_corridor (last visited 3/15/18).

2. Case law research for this article was limited primarily to Texas and Fifth Circuit cases.

3. See www.dea.gov/about/history.shtml [click on 1980–1985 tab] (last visited 3/15/18)

4. Id. at p. 54.

5. Id.

6. See State v. Escobar, 388 S.E.2d 534, 537 (Ga. App. 1989) (Pope, J. concurring specially).

7. Id. at 535–36.

8. Id. at 536.

9. Id.

10. Id. at 537–38.

11. Id. (emphasis added).

12. United States v. $32,310.00 in U.S. Currency, 1988 WL 169271, at *3 (D. N.J. 1988).

13. Id. at *1.

14. Id. at *3.

15. Id. at *7 (emphasis added).

16. 137 Fed. Appx. 701 (5th Cir. 2005).

17. Id. at 702.

18. Id. at 707–08.

19. Id. at 708 (emphasis added).

20. Santiago, 310 F.3d at 340.

21. Jones, 234 F.3d at 239–40.

22. 2001 WL 246018 (Tex. App.—Texarkana 2001, no pet.).

23. Id. at *1.

24. 2003 WL 22020783 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2003, no pet.).

25. Id. at *2.

26. There is no explanation as to why laughing at the officer’s question re­garding “hand grenades” or “dead bodies” would lead the officer to suspect crim­inal activity. He probably would have been suspicious if the defendant had not laughed at his attempt at humor.

27. Id. at *4.

28. $130,510.00 in U.S. Lawful Currency v. State, 266 S.W.3d 169 (Tex. App.—Texarkana 2008, pet. denied), and $43,774.00 U.S. Currency v. State, 266 S.W.3d 178 (Tex. App.—Texarkana 2008, pet. denied).

29. $130,510.00 v. State, 266 S.W.3d at 172.

30. Id. at n. 5 (emphasis in original).

31. Id. at 177.

32. $43,774.00 v. State, 266 S.W.3d at 180.

33. Id. at 181.

34. Id. at 182.

35. Id. at 184.

36. Id. at 187–88.

37. United States v. Madrigal, 626 Fed. Appx. 448 (5th Cir. 2015).

38. Id. at 448–49.

39. Id. at 449.

40. Id.

41. Id. at 450.

42. Id. at n. 17.

43. Id. at 451.

44. Id.

45. Id. at 452.

46. Id.

47. “Appellant was traveling on [Highway] 287, which in Trooper Harden’s training and experience is a drug corridor.” See Smith v. State, 2017 WL 1289354, at *5 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 2017, pet. ref’d). See also United States v. Pack, 612 F.3d 341, 361 (5th Cir.), modified 622 F.3d 383 (5th Cir. 2010) (Officer testified regarding driver’s extreme nervousness, conflicting stories, “and the fact that the two were traveling along a drug trafficking corridor” caused officer to suspect that they were engaged in criminal drug activity. Officer’s “suspicion is entitled to significant weight, because he had been a law enforcement officer for 17 years.”).

48. 266 S.W.3d at 187–88 and 626 Fed. Appx. at 451.