Secretive DEA ‘whisper’ stops get costly

Data from Arizona DPS. Infographic by Eric Betz

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency was monitoring a drug trafficking operation in Phoenix in 2005 when a GPS unit placed on an Acura sedan alerted them that the vehicle had left the Valley. Investigators knew it was on a drug run to Chicago.

The feds asked the Arizona Highway Patrol to stop the car outside Flagstaff on Interstate 40 near Cosnino Road. The officer said the Acura traveled six inches over the white line. In the trunk was 30 pounds of marijuana.

The Department of Public Safety report made no mention of the DEA or its stop request. That revelation came years later in federal documents.

The tactic is called a “whisper stop,” or “walled-off stop,” and it has become a common tool in the war on drugs. In order to protect a larger investigation, federal drug agents will ask the highway patrol to make a stop look like a random traffic violation. If possible, the driver is turned against the drug organization, sometimes on the side of the road.

The Arizona Highway Patrol made some 1,500 drug trafficking arrests last year, and 117 of those happened exactly at milepost 200 on Interstate 40 — just outside of Flagstaff. It’s by far the highest number of stops at any single location in the state. Not all of those are whisper stops. And often the information flows the other way. In random drug finds, DPS officers will feed information back to the feds.

From 2006 to 2008, the Coconino County Attorney’s Office says it prosecuted 198 such cases of federally initiated interstate drug trafficking. The total price tag for prosecution alone: $850,000.

And for several years, the Department of Justice was willing to repay Coconino County for doing its work. Now, they are asking for the money back.

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