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Profiling postal packages.

Most Americans use the U.S. Postal Service nearly every day. Whether to send bills to clients, advertise for new customers, or exchange letters with friends, citizens rely on the Postal Service to help them conduct their professional and personal business. Unfortunately, some people use it to conduct illegal business--namely, drug distribution.

In Omaha, Nebraska, authorities have taken steps to cut off the drug trade conducted by mail. In 1988. inspectors from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service proposed a partnership with the Omaha, Nebraska, Police Department's Narcotics Unit to interdict drugs transported into the city by mail. Prior intelligence gathering revealed that dealers smuggled large amounts of cocaine into Omaha simply by wrapping up the drugs and mailing them at the post office. Smugglers often used express delivery methods because the demands of quick delivery lowered the chances of detection by postal inspectors.

The joint operation has yielded positive results. In one early case, inspectors intercepted a suspicious package mailed from Los Angeles, California, to an Omaha address. Based on the subsequent investigation, inspectors obtained a search warrant for the package, which contained 6 ounces (186 grams) of powdered cocaine.

The drugs led the joint team to a big arrest when an undercover postal inspector made a controlled delivery of the package to the mailing address in Omaha, and police officers immediately executed a search warrant on the location. Inside, officers apprehended a hard core gang member who had relocated from southern California and established gun- and drug-running operations in the city. The success of this operation and others like it stemmed from two factors: Use of a package profile to identify suspicious parcels and close cooperation between the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Omaha Police Narcotics Unit during the investigatory process.


To identify pieces of mail that might contain controlled substances, postal inspectors rely on a package profile based on a readily discernable, predetermined set of criteria. Past court decisions make clear that the regular application of a consistent set of criteria is not intrusive.(1) Using the profile helps establish reasonable suspicion, which is required by the Postal Service to detain mail for examination.(2)

The profile sets criteria for both the package's condition and its label. Taken individually, few of the criteria would indicate that the package contains contraband; however, a combination of these factors indicates a suspicious package worthy of a second look.

First, in terms of the package itself, inspectors look for parcels that have been heavily taped along the seams, have been prepared poorly for mailing, have an uneven weight distribution, or apparently have been reused. However, inspectors do not identify questionable pieces of mail only by sight; suspicious packages frequently emit odors of marijuana or of a masking agent, such as perfume, coffee, or fabric-softener sheets.

Second, package labels often provide clues. Inspectors look for labels that have been handwritten; contain misspelled names, streets, or cities; originate from a drug-source State; and have been sent from one person to another, not from a business to an individual. Further identifiers include a return address ZIP code that does not match the accepting post office ZIP code or a fictitious return address. Finally, the names of the sender and/or the receiver frequently have a common ring to them, such as John Smith, and have no connection to either address.

Postal inspectors receive copies of all labels from packages signed for by the recipient. If a particular address receives multiple deliveries from a drug-source State, for example, inspectors will check with postal carriers at both the sending and receiving addresses to verify names and addresses. If the return address is fictitious or if the listed names do not have a connection to either address, inspectors will be alert to intercept future packages.


The Postal Inspection Service bears responsibility for detecting suspicious packages. This type of investigation requires patience, because inspectors routinely examine hundreds of mailing labels on packages sent through the mail. Through these examinations, inspectors attempt to recognize packages matching the profile characteristics. When they locate a suspicious package, the investigation begins.

Present Package to Drug Dog

Upon discovery of a suspicious package, postal inspectors notify the Omaha Police Narcotics Unit. The unit's supervisor assigns a drug dog handler to meet with the inspector and present the package to the dog.

Presentation strategies vary. Sometimes the handler hides the package to see if the dog can sniff out its location. At other times, the handler presents the suspicious package to the dog, along with other similar parcels.

The dog handler carefully records the details of the presentation for future use as search warrant documentation. The dog's positive reaction to the package indicates the presence of drugs, which in many cases establishes probable cause to prepare a search warrant to inspect the parcel's contents.

Obtain Search Warrants

Suspicious package investigations typically require two search warrants: One to open and search the package and one to search the mailing address after delivery of the parcel. Postal inspectors and police investigators work closely to ensure that all documentation for the warrants is complete and accurate, important factors in obtaining evidence and prosecuting the case.

Searching the Package

Because the U.S. mail falls under Federal jurisdiction, a Federal warrant must be obtained for any suspicious package. The police drug dog handler helps the inspector prepare the affidavit because they must provide the magistrate with a history of the dog's reliability and past achievements.

Having obtained the warrant, postal inspectors open the package. This important step must not be dealt with carelessly. The package might need to be resealed for a controlled delivery, so inspectors must exercise caution. To preserve fingerprints on any item or contraband, the person opening the package wears rubber gloves. Inspectors also photograph the opening of the parcel in a series of steps for use as future evidence.

In the formative stages of Omaha's program, postal inspectors and police investigators met with prosecutors to determine a strategy for handling cases brought by the joint team. They concurred that when a package containing drugs was identified, investigators would remove most of the drugs, leaving just a small amount to be resealed in the package and delivered later. Prosecutors agreed that they could argue successfully in court that the defendant found in possession of the resealed package actually had "constructive possession" of the original amount of contraband. However, to preserve the elements of the State or Federal drugs violation, it would be best if at least some of the drugs originally seized were delivered in the package.

After removing most of the illegal substance, inspectors frequently replace it with an imitation so as not to alert suspects when they open the package. For example, a recent investigation in Omaha located a large amount of crack cocaine formed into the shape of cookies. Investigators left several of the original crack cookies in the package but substituted sugar cookies for the rest.

On a practical note, this procedure safeguards against the loss of the evidence in the unlikely event that the subject eludes police officers after the package is delivered but before the search warrant of the residence can be executed. Omaha officers quickly discovered that suspects often attempt to leave the location with the evidence immediately following the controlled delivery of the package but prior to the entry team's arrival.

Searching the Address

Once the package has been searched and resealed, the Omaha Police Narcotics Unit supervisor prepares a search warrant for the mailing address. This does not have to be a Federal warrant, but the Federal search warrant used to open the package is referenced in the warrant petition and a copy is attached.

A police investigator and the postal inspector collaborate to prepare the second search warrant. The affidavit describes exactly how the investigation began--with discovery of the suspicious package--and follows with the details of presenting the parcel to the drug dog, obtaining the Federal search warrant, opening the package, and locating the drugs. The affidavit also notes that officers removed a specific amount of the drug from the package, left a small amount, and refilled the package with an imitation substance.

This type of search warrant is anticipatory in nature. That is, the affidavit clearly must show that law enforcement officers currently possess the drugs to be seized and that they intend to serve the search warrant after the controlled delivery of the package. If probable cause exists, items such as packaging materials, scales, long distance telephone bills, money, drug records, and additional drugs should be listed on the warrant to be seized. Any historical or intelligence information about the address of the anticipated delivery or the persons known to frequent the address also should be documented in the affidavit.

Prepare for Delivery

The next step involves delivering the package to the intended address under carefully controlled conditions. The Narcotics Unit supervisor handles three aspects of this operation. The supervisor arranges the controlled delivery, establishes a secure perimeter around the address to prevent the subject from leaving with the package, and supervises the execution of the search warrant.

First, the supervisor conducts an extensive reconnaissance of the address, especially noting all possible exits. Because at least several minutes will elapse between the controlled delivery and the execution of the search warrant to allow the recipient time to open the package, all exits of the address must be placed under surveillance to prevent anyone from leaving with the package.

Second, the supervisor briefs all officers involved in executing the search warrant, dividing officers between the perimeter and entry teams. The perimeter team, which keeps all exits of the target address under surveillance, must be positioned to stop and arrest anyone who might leave with the package after it has been delivered. The entry team, which typically comprises Omaha police officers, postal inspectors, and occasionally, FBI agents, serves the warrant, makes appropriate arrests, and conducts the subsequent search of the premises.

Deliver the Package

An undercover postal inspector normally delivers the package after the perimeter team takes its position. In most situations, the Narcotics Unit supervisor then gives the recipient enough time to open the package, because an opened package undermines the commonly used defense that the suspect did not know what it contained.

In addition, experience shows that the original recipient often will turn over the parcel to a second person who arrives within minutes of the delivery. For this reason, the supervisor might choose to wait a considerable length of time before sending in the entry team.

Execute the Search Warrant

At the appropriate time, the entry team executes the search warrant for the package on the target location. During the search, officers remain alert for additional drugs, drug records, money, long distance telephone bills, scales, baggies, and other labels of packages previously mailed to the address, as listed on the warrant.

Upon completion of the search, the supervisor quickly analyzes the situation to determine whether to interrogate the person who signed for the package on the scene. If such questioning could prove fruitful, the suspect is advised of his Miranda rights. On occasion, by immediately interrogating the recipient, investigators have convinced suspects to make tape-recorded telephone contact with a second suspect who, in turn, arrived at the scene only to be arrested.

Investigators question the arrested parties thoroughly to determine their knowledge of the parcel's contents and their connections with a network of people involved in smuggling the package into the city. Many postal profiling cases in Omaha have resulted in Federal prosecution of individuals in other States, such as California, for participating in drug smuggling operations.


The success of the package profiling program in Omaha proves that law enforcement can transcend jurisdictional boundaries to combat crimes that often go undetected. Highlights of the program include two separate seizures of 3-pound quantities of crack cocaine valued at approximately $250,000 each that had been mailed to Omaha from sources in Los Angeles.

Not all seizures have run smoothly. In one case, inspectors intercepted a package containing 5 ounces (155 grams) of methamphetamine. Following standard procedure, officers removed all but 5 grams of the substance, which they sealed in a tube taped to the inside of the package. A female at the target address signed for the package during the controlled delivery, but when officers executed the search warrant, no drugs could be found. Knowing that they had delivered the methamphetamine, officers conducted an extensive and thorough search of the premises but to no avail. Finally, several hours later, the woman vomited the tube intact. She had swallowed it when she saw the law enforcement officers approach the residence.

Despite the occasional mishap, the package profiling system has produced many seizures that have netted both crack and powdered cocaine, marijuana, LSD, methamphetamine, heroin, steroids, and hallucinogenic mushrooms. Prosecutors have obtained numerous felony convictions in both Federal and State courts.


Profiling postal packages represents a challenging and exciting aspect of drug enforcement. In the future, law enforcement agencies might expand the use of this technique to detect packages transported by private carriers and parcel services.

The expertise gained by working with postal inspectors to detect controlled substances sent by mail could be applied to private carriers in an attempt to choke off other conduits for transporting controlled substances. By employing every method available, U.S. Postal Inspectors can work with local law enforcement agencies to keep the Postal Service from being an unwitting and unwilling drug courier.


Postal inspectors use these criteria to identify packages that might contain drugs.

Package Criteria

* Emits odors of marijuana or or a masking agent (e.g., coffee, perfume, fabric-softener sheets)

* Is heavily taped along seams

* Is poorly prepared for mailing

* Appears to have been re-used

* Has an uneven weight distribution

Label Criteria

* Is handwritten

* Contains misspelled names, streets, or cities

* Originates from a drug source State

* Has been sent from an individual to an individual

* Contains return address ZIP code that does not match accepting post office ZIP code

* Shows a fictitious return address

* Lists sender's and/or receiver's names of common type (e.g., John Smith) that are not connected to either address


(1) United States v. Hill, 701 F. Supp. 1522 (D.C.Kan. 1988). (2) The U.S. Postal Service's Administrative Support Manual (ASM), Section 274.31, disallows any mail sealed against inspection (i.e., First-Class, Express Mail) to be detained, even for a dog sniff, with very few exceptions. ASM 274.31 (a) notes that "a Postal Inspector acting diligently and without avoidable delay, upon reasonable suspicion, for a brief period of time [may detain a piece of mail] to assemble sufficient evidence to satisfy the probable-cause requirement for a search warrant, and to apply for, obtain, and execute the warrant." Therefore, reasonable suspicion must exist before the mail can be detained.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:identification of mail packages used in drug smuggling
Author:Vajgert, Gerald
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Feb 1, 1996
Previous Article:Critical incident stress in law enforcement.
Next Article:Responding to line-of-duty deaths.

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