In April of this year, two Drug Enforcement Administration task force members stopped a man named Issa Serieh at Los Angeles International Airport, asked him some questions, and seized $30,750 in cash off of him. They sent him on his way without charging him with a crime.
The task force members "were in a LAX terminal gate monitoring passengers arriving on American Airlines flight number 2220 which had traveled from Chicago," according to a complaint filed last month at the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. And why were they monitoring that particular gate? Because "Chicago is a known consumer city for narcotics and Los Angeles is a known source city where narcotics can be purchased," the complaint explains.
That fact, plus the fact that the Serieh exited the plane with "a small backpack over his shoulder," are the only reasons given for why the agents initiated the encounter that would lead to over $30,000 in cash being taken from Serieh.
We don't know whether Serieh was carrying the cash as part of a series of drug transactions. Earlier this year, he was arrested in Nebraska for driving one of two cars that police officers found 128 pounds of marijuana in.
But the DEA task force members didn't know this when they stopped him in Los Angeles. The complaint states they identified him as Issa Serieh later, during their questioning. The only reasons they give for initial suspicion are the backpack, and the flight from Chicago to L.A.
For his part, Serieh maintains his innocence. A court declaration filed by his lawyer states that the money was loaned to him by his uncle, and that he was stopped without probable cause. In a phone interview, Serieh's lawyer Peter Herrick said the agents stopped Serieh solely on the basis of where his flight originated from, and that they took his money when they didn't like how he answered questions about where he was going and how he planned to get there.
"Their preconceived notions of the way people should do things is way off the charts," Herrick said. He said that information about Serieh's previous marijuana arrest was "so irrelevant to this case that I didn't even look into it." He said that the government shouldn't be able to take a person's money away without first convicting them of a crime. In this case, Serieh wasn't charged with anything.
I reached out to the DEA for comment but they didn't immediately respond. They don't typically comment on ongoing investigations, but I'll update this story if they do.
The episode illustrates the broad types of behaviors that drug cops base their suspicions on. The Chicago to Los Angeles air route is the fourth-busiest in the United States, serving roughly 3 million passengers per year.
But Los Angeles, you see, is part of a federally-designated "High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area." So is Chicago. So are New York, D.C., Houston and pretty much every major city in the U.S. Overall, nearly two-thirds of the nation's residents live in one of these "High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas."
There are almost certainly more drug traffickers active in these areas than in other areas of the country. But then again, these areas are also home to more white people, black people, old people, young people, dentists, doctors, Star Trek fans, Star Wars fans, dog owners, cat owners, people who wear shorts to the office, people who don't wear shorts to the office, and people of literally every variety imaginable, as this famous XKCD comic makes clear.
The DEA's net of suspicion, in other words, is extremely broad. If you stop and question enough of the 3 million people who fly from Chicago to Los Angeles, eventually you will get lucky and stumble upon someone who might be involved with drug crimes. But you have to do an awful lot of fishing, and of questioning completely innocent people, before you make that one catch.