Fly High or Drop It By

The challenge of investigating shipped or mailed drugs

By Richard Hough  |   Nov 8, 2017

The investigation of drug delivery by mail or parcel service is a challenge for law enforcement, making it attractive to those who want to send various types of contraband rather than deliver it personally. To prevent this, law enforcement must work with the carrier, which might come across signs of illicit items or drugs in the course of their work, so that investigators can work to identify the sender and receiver, as well as make assessments as to whether the sending of the substance or items is part of a larger or ongoing enterprise.

Postal services in the United States and around the world face a daunting task of interdicting drugs and other items sent by mail. Parcel delivery services face similar challenges locating illegal substances and items, or items sent unlawfully. Both mail and delivery services must have in place the policies, mechanisms, and employee training to confront the problem of such unwanted packages. While the United States Postal Service (USPS) has a long-established organizational group assigned to such investigations, services such as FedEx, UPS, DHL, and airlines take a more decentralized approach to discovering and then reporting contraband to law enforcement.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and others have long sought legislative action to slow or halt the mailing of prescription drugs as just one facet of the burden to adequately screen mail and shipping services for injurious or illegal items in and among lawfully sent items. U. S. Customs and Border Protection has maintained over the years that the volume of packages that pass into and out of the country is too great to ensure that no illegally shipped items get through. This applies to domestic shipping as well.

Globalization, as well as thriving domestic shipping, shows anyone that the work necessary to try and fight illegal shipping of drugs or dangerous items is both difficult and important. Such investigations may outmatch the resources of local agencies and call for cooperation with state or federal agencies to investigate.

Volume & Resources

The USPS handles hundreds of millions of pieces of mail daily. Package delivery services do a thriving business as well. Personnel and other resources assigned to address the use of the postal service for illicit mailing cannot keep pace. Dark Web or Dark Internet sites such as “Silk Road” and others can provide drugs mailed to your door with transactions being conducted using digital currency such as “bitcoin” and others. Other functions in law enforcement seek to deter various crimes and hostile acts such as the Federal Air Marshal program that assigns marshals to accompany international (and some domestic) flights. Only a small percentage of flights have an Air Marshal on board.

Commercial airlines have also experienced employee smuggling over the years as criminals gravitate to a job that helps them accomplish their chosen crime. Even Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees have been arrested for smuggling. An investigation earlier this year uncovered a group of airport and TSA employees that had smuggled 20 tons of cocaine over nearly as many years.

Efforts by Homeland Security to search vessels and containers are other examples of the constant challenge to deter and detect illegal activities that people seek to obscure in the greater mass of lawful travel, commerce, or communications. This is relatively easy for most citizens to understand, but how do agencies effectively catch and prosecute offenders?

Tips & Tools

Throughout the history of smuggling things authorities have benefitted from information supplied by various sources. Jail and prison mailroom operations have the authority (if not always the physical ability) to search every piece of mail delivered to a facility.

Technology can sometimes aid in detecting certain types of residue or scents on mail or packages, but law enforcement investigations initiated by the call from the USPS or a package delivery company develops with suspicious items identified by the complainant. A concerned citizen may report suspicious activity that brings police to a location to discover a meth lab, for example. An employee finds it odd that a fellow employee consistently insists on handling certain luggage or shipping containers and so he reports the behavior to his organization’s management or outside law enforcement leading to discovery of a smuggling ring or operation. Of course competitors in the illegal shipping of items may provide key intelligence that allows law enforcement to interdict good shipped by a rival—hopefully seized along with the rival.

Formal policies and training put in place by private companies to address illegal drug shipping and the handling of suspected contraband provide opportunities for law enforcement to access and investigate circumstances that would otherwise be unavailable to them. Law enforcement officers do not simply “drop in” to the local FedEx or UPS facility to run a drug-sniffing dog up and down the processing line or randomly begin opening packages. Reasonable suspicion and probable cause guide the actions of police in their efforts to investigate suspected crimes reported to them or discovered through their initiative. This underscores an important reality of law enforcement investigations: most matters reported to police do not have sufficient solvability factors present to warrant assignment for follow-up investigation. Discovering illegal goods with a delivery address moves a case into the category of justifying the use of limited resources.

The USPS and parcel services developed tools over time such as package profiles to distinguish possible drug-containing packages from the tremendous volume and steady flow of all packages. Profiles are developed through prior experience with packages found to contain drugs. This shared experience with the mail, shipping, and law enforcement communities helps establish the reasonable suspicion that can lead to further steps in a competent investigation.

Appropriate profile alerts rely on more than simply one criterion or factor—unless drugs are leaking out of the package. Even casual television and movie watchers have seen examples of one such factor, the use of odor masking substances in a package, which results in employees smelling coffee, fabric softener sheets, or the like. A package may be heavily wrapped and taped or unusually heavy (based on the experience of the trained employee). Further package inspection may reveal apparent address label irregularities or clues. Perhaps misspelled names of streets or cities could indicate a drug source sending the mail or package. Telephone numbers for either the sender or receiver may be omitted. A sending location may also be in a source location as determined by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Fictitious return addresses are somewhat more readily identified in the computer age through the power of database checking which may show also show a name-address mismatch. The sender may also use a commercial package drop to avoid using a privately identifiable address.

Investigating Further

Further steps in an investigation may involve trying to determine if multiple shipments or mailings have gone to a particular address or name or come from a particular locale or questionable name. Route letter-carriers or delivery personnel may be questioned about activity or anything the employee may have noted as suspicious. Once a package has been flagged as possibly containing drugs USPS or a shipping service may contact local law enforcement to request a certified drug identification dog to determine if a scent can be detected.

A controlled delivery is often the next investigative step to catch the participants in the drug transaction. With enough articulable information to establish the probable cause for a court to issue a search warrant, the law enforcement team will serve the warrant immediately following the controlled delivery of the suspect package(s).

This can come in the form of what are known as anticipatory search warrants (see United States v. Miggins, 2002), where the court relies on a supporting affidavit and determines there is sufficient probable cause to believe evidence will be found at the location described. The controlled delivery is carried out with the hope that the receiver will not be put off by a late arrival of a package or seeing someone other than their usual delivery person carrying the package to the door. A further red flag that may derail a controlled delivery investigation is when the receiver opens the package and sees anything at all out of place from the established protocol, e.g., the appearance of package inspection or opening, wrapping or box fill material not “just so,” etc.

Subsequent to the arrest and seizure of the delivered contraband, the investigators will interrogate any suspects present and try to determine if further incriminating or intelligence is available or whether the arrested person(s) will claim the delivery was a mistake. One article on the Dark Web also instructs people on how to receive drugs and admonishes receivers to never admit to anything and to act “scared, confused, panicked, whatever.” It may be all but impossible to pursue any further investigation into who sent the drugs if the address is false and outside the jurisdiction of the delivery. Most agencies will have to settle for the arrest of the receiving individual in a controlled delivery, similar to the outcome in most controlled buy-bust operations. The totality of the circumstances will guide the further actions of the investigating officers, the prosecutor in the case, and possibly a jury if the case goes to trial.


Illegal drug investigations can be among the most challenging that law enforcement faces. Identifying, interdicting, and investigating drugs and other items sent by mail or package delivery service presents law enforcement with evidence and often a potential suspect at the delivery location—if that location is not an abandoned house or a neighbor’s house that the offender monitors for delivery. Despite the challenges, the public expects its police agencies to work hard to stop the flow of drugs into the community and hold accountable those who send and those who receive.