How serious is someone getting searched by a DEA agent?
September 17, 2014 6:08 AM   Subscribe

I feel that something more serious is going on than a "traffic stop", but then again, I may be paranoid. Advice?

Someone I am close to was searched by the DEA recently. They were pulled over on the interstate because of a headlight being out, questioned, vehicle and trunk searched, and were patted down. I would have never thought that this person would be in any kind of drug-related trouble, but they proceeded to lie to me about being pulled over and searched so I'm concerned. I got the information about them being pulled over by accidentally overhearing a conversation and I don't really feel comfortable asking them for more information. I've suspected that something fishy has been going on but would have never suspected drugs.

Is it normal for someone to be searched by the DEA for no reason or is this a sign that something more serious is going on?
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I don't think the DEA pulls people over for blown headlights. This sounds like a normal police officer going on a fishing expedition, and like your friend probably didn't know his rights.
posted by jon1270 at 6:19 AM on September 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

I don't think anyone can answer this question because your friend & his car may have matched a description and he could have just been wrong place / wrong time.

You might want to clarify exactly what you were told vs. EXACTLY what you overheard.

The details of what you overheard might give someone with experience in law enforcement the ability to directly answer your question.

In general, no, the DEA does not pull people people over. BUT, if this happened to me when I lived in San Diego, I might not have been surprised because it's a border town.

See what I mean? I know you are trying to be discreet, but the details matter.
posted by jbenben at 6:22 AM on September 17, 2014

Well, if you already thought your friend was acting fishy, and now you know they lied to you about being stopped, that could raise red flags. You're not a cop, so it's not your job to investigate. But if you are wondering if this gives you a reason to distance yourself from that friend, you absolutely have this internet stranger's permission to do so.

Beyond that, we need more information.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:26 AM on September 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

I was pulled over for speeding when I was in college and the highway patrolman patted me down and made me sit in his patrol car while he searched my entire car. I was young and scared and didn't protest and it still makes me angry thinking about it. I'm sure the whole thing was due to the Grateful Dead stickers on my back window. So yeah, people are pulled over and searched for pretty much no reason. I don't know why the DEA would be involved, though.
posted by something something at 6:26 AM on September 17, 2014

Without talking to this person, you have no idea whether or not it was actual a DEA agent or not. Right now, you are worrying about an overheard conversation by someone you know lied to you. They could be exaggerating to the person they were talking to and it was really barney fife that stopped them - you have no idea.

i would doubt the DEA is stalking your friend in order to stop him and search him. If he was that big of a target, they would be lots more crafty. More than likely it was a traffic stop by local or state law enforcement prompted by the headlight and he looked or acted shifty enough they searched him. Happens ALL the time and yeilds millions of dollars of drugs every year.
posted by domino at 6:39 AM on September 17, 2014

The DEA can and does get involved in traffic stops, generally when they have prior information that leads them to believe drugs are being transported. Even when they find drugs, they will often seize the drugs and let the person go after questioning, in order to continue to investigate a suspected trafficking organization. They might charge the person later, or not, depending on the situation and whether the person cooperates with the investigation (wears a wire, sets up additional controlled buys, etc).
posted by bepe at 6:40 AM on September 17, 2014

Could be serious; could be not serious. Maybe the friend's car matched a description of a vehicle they were looking for. Maybe the friend was driving through/from a known drug locale. Maybe the friend had the 'wrong' color skin for the area/vehicle he/she was driving. Maybe the cop was just trying to get a lucky break (e.g., finding a small amount of marijuana or even a "hidden compartment" in the vehicle).

Likely, the friend was searched because he/she consented to a search. To quote Jay Z, in response to a cop's "Mind if I look around the car a li'l bit?":

"My glove compartment's locked, so's the trunk in the back, and I know my rights, so you're gonna need a warrant for that."

Now, Jay Z is almost right. Probable cause, and sometimes reasonable cause, can be sufficient to search a vehicle without a warrant or consent (see Terry Stop). Most of the time though, people just give consent because they don't know that they can refuse (or they believe that consenting will lead to the situation resolving more quickly). Consent = no need to meet 4th amendment restrictions.
posted by melissasaurus at 6:43 AM on September 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

To answer your question more directly, if it was in fact the DEA that searched him, I would be very surprised if it was for no reason. They more often search after they have info on you (tapped phones, informants, etc.). Local officers are much more likely to search cars on fishing expeditions, with flimsy grounds like you're brown and nervous and driving on a certain stretch of interstate. So a lot of my concern in your situation would be based in who actually searched. And if it was the DEA, and they found something, the fact that he is not in jail now is no indication of whether he will be soon.
posted by bepe at 6:49 AM on September 17, 2014

OP here - just wanted to update the question with as much information as I could without revealing specifics.

Friend is not someone who doesn't know their rights. They worked closely with law enforcement at one point during their career and would be aware of these things as well as how to identify a law enforcement agency.

We are located in the rural midwest. Friend drives a nice car that isn't flashy (family sized sedan), is very clean cut, and was pulled over between 7-9 am.

I'm as close to 100% positive that this is the true story as anyone can be. I asked friend's sibling about it (someone that they notoriously do not lie to) and they confirmed what I overheard. The lie friend told me regarding why they were late is that they were detoured because of construction. Note that no one in this story is in college or young - all are professionals between the ages of 45-55.

I am hoping that this is just a case of mistaken identity, "wrong place, wrong time", or "fishing" like some of you have said. Friend obviously wasn't taken into custody so perhaps that's the answer.
posted by sockpuppetforupdate at 7:04 AM on September 17, 2014

but they proceeded to lie to me about being pulled over and searched so I'm concerned

If I was completely innocent and involved in a stop like this, I think I might make up some other excuse to cover over the incident rather than tell everyone and have them all assume I must be guilty and involved in selling drugs. Your "concern" is exactly why I wouldn't tell people.
posted by kiltedtaco at 7:25 AM on September 17, 2014 [22 favorites]

2nding kiltedtaco. I wouldn't put all my business out there in the street either. A couple of very very close friends might get to hear the story, along with my (probable) outrage, but it wouldn't be something I would allow to be common knowledge, precisely because I wouldn't want people to judge me as probably doing something shady that I was not actually doing.
posted by vignettist at 7:45 AM on September 17, 2014 [7 favorites]

The lie friend told me regarding why they were late is that they were detoured because of construction.

I'd lie to someone I felt was likely to judge me, was already judging me, had a history of jumping to conclusions, was a chronic worrier, or someone I just didn't want to have a long conversation with about something minor and kind of annoying.

Not saying you're any of these things because you're totally anonymous, but if it were me -- those are the things that would cause me to lie, even if what happened was completely innocuous. I'm 45 years old and really in almost all ways a total non-liar, and in fact, a lousy liar, but every now and then my father will ask if I'm driving when I'm on the phone with him and I'll say No just because I don't feel like dealing with a discussion about legalities and phone calls and driving while smoking or eating a hamburger etc etc.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 9:38 AM on September 17, 2014

favoriting vignettist; i don't put my business in the street for every busybody to gossip behind my back, judge me and query internet strangers about me either.

there is a multitude of reasons he could have been stopped, only a handful of which have been addressed upthread. many different police agencies conduct traffic stops for many different reasons. since your friend is former law enforcement, perhaps one of his old colleagues has a grudge of some kind against him. the most important thing is that after an exhaustive search, they didn't find anything illegal! someone struck at him and missed.
posted by bruce at 10:04 AM on September 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

When we lived in a suburb, my son was pulled over and searched for drugs so often, he was on a first-name basis with the K-9 cop. He did have long hair, but drove a nice car. Time of day/night did not matter. It was not a big deal to him, nothing was ever found. We were a little suspicious of some of his friends, so I think he just avoided another lecture by not telling us whenever it happened. I can easily see why someone would rather not bring it up.
posted by raisingsand at 11:30 AM on September 17, 2014

Are they in prison? Are they in jail? Do they have a court date? If the answer to any of these questions is something other an "No", then it is a big deal.

Getting pulled over and searched by law enforcement is a scary and traumatic experience that nobody feels good about, particularly in countries like the US which have a fetish for mass incarceration.

Don't blame the victim here. Be a better friend, and give the benefit of the doubt.
posted by oceanjesse at 3:42 PM on September 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

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