Thursday, October 8, 2009

Drug Bust Scenario

United States v. Collado
provides a concise description of a customs interception of a drug smuggling operation:
In the early hours of January 27, 1994, the U.S. Customs Service Air Branch dispatched two aircraft to the southeast of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands after learning that an air drop of contraband was to take place. The plane making an air drop was not found, but a vessel was detected in the suspected area, east of Puerto Rico, by a Customs NOMAD maritime surveillance and search aircraft equipped with a 360-degree radar ("Omaha 05"). Pilot Mark Jackson first observed the vessel from his window at approximately 3:33 a.m., aided by bright moonlight. He testified that the vessel was traveling without lights and quickly, leaving behind observable waves. The air interdiction officer who assisted him, Leslie Robb, immediately located the vessel using a forward looking infrared (FLIR) system. This equipment senses heat energy emitted by objects and produces black and white images which can be recorded on videotape, as was done here.

Omaha 05 tracked the vessel for about forty-five minutes until it reached Cayo Luis Pena, an uninhabited key near the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. During this period the vessel occasionally stopped; Officer Robb testified that smugglers often use this tactic of going "dead in the water" (DIW) in order to listen for surveillance aircraft and avoid detection. Omaha 05 lost track of the vessel at least twice during this period. Contact resumed within a few minutes each time, according to the videotape and testimony by Robb.

After the vessel reached Cayo Luis Pena, Officer Robb observed at least three people moving to and from the shore. The vessel departed seven to ten minutes later, at about 4:30 a.m. It traveled westward without lights at a gradually increasing speed. Omaha 05 tracked the vessel for about forty minutes and then lost contact at 5:09 a.m. for twelve minutes. Officer Robb explained at trial that he lost the target vessel when it went DIW and his attention was focused on the radar, instead of the FLIR (a manual tracking system), in order to direct a Customs marine unit to the target vessel. Robb temporarily was unable to detect any vessel in the area. He then located the Customs marine unit and a fuerzas unidas rapida accion (FURA) vessel of the Puerto Rican Police Department, and at 5:21 a.m. reacquired the target vessel on the FLIR. The vessel was less than one mile from the point where it was lost. Robb testified that no other vessels were detected in the area.

Omaha 05, assisted by a FURA helicopter, guided the Customs marine unit to intercept the target vessel. Pedro Vicens, a special agent and criminal investigator on the Customs boat, testified that four individuals[2] were aboard the twenty-four foot fishing boat which had two seventy-five horsepower engines. The vessel had two large gas tanks built into the area that customarily stores fishing equipment or bait. Approaching the vessel, Vicens sensed a strong odor of gasoline. He soon observed that the boat was full of fluid and gasoline: the fuel line had been cut, gas was coming from the tank, and individuals aboard appeared to be bailing out gasoline from the bottom of the vessel and moving as if to wash something. He testified that washing the deck to conceal any smell or residue of narcotics was a common practice of drug smugglers.

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