BRANDON(AP) — Deputy Shannon Penn finds solace in patrolling the Rankin County stretch of I-20 alone at odd hours of the night.

With about 16 years of experience as a narcotics investigator for the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department, Penn relies on training and intuition to nab drug haulers.

He gets into his element when he’s behind the wheel, in uniform, he said.

‘‘I just get a feeling. I just get an urge,’’ Penn said nonchalantly about his record of being one of the best around at catching drug haulers.

Penn’s ‘‘feelings’’ have paid off. During a 14-year period, Penn estimates that he has handled 1,500 to 1,600 cases, with 1,200 of those being felony cases involving drug activity. His biggest busts included 5,000 pounds of marijuana, 1,700 pounds of cocaine, 90 pounds of crystal methamphetamine and $900,000 in cash. He has caught people smuggling humans, animals, guns, drugs and money.

Because of his successes in interstate interdiction, the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department doesn’t release Penn’s work schedule. They don’t want the ‘‘bad guys’’ knowing when he’s on the road, said Richard Lawrence, legal counsel for the department.

But there is a method to his schedule, Penn said. He likes to work when there are fewer officers clogging what’s been known for years as a major drug trafficking artery. For more than a decade, people have traveled I-20 to get to Atlanta, a major hub for distribution, Penn said.

When on patrol, he watches for people driving erratically, too fast or too slow. When he stops someone for a traffic violation, he pays close attention to their body language.

‘‘I can tell if they’re trying to be deceptive,’’ Penn said. ‘‘You can tell by looking at someone. It doesn’t make a difference whether you’re looking for a criminal or looking for love. If you watch the body language, you can tell if someone is trying to hide something from you or if they are open to you.’’

If something seems amiss, he may ask to search the vehicle. Almost everyone consents, he said.

But it gets harder and harder to find where drugs are hidden because, for years, law enforcement has unconsciously been educating criminals, Penn said.

‘‘They watch closely how we search,’’ Penn said. ‘‘And they learn from mistakes. ... They’re constantly changing and finding new ways. They’re trying to stay ahead of police.’’

And police are trying to outsmart the drug haulers through increased use of surveillance, information sharing and high-tech intelligence gathering, Lawrence said. These tactics, which Lawrence said he could not elaborate on, have resulted in a drop in drug traffic along I-20 within the past two years, he added.

‘‘We’re not seeing the volume we used to see,’’ Lawrence said. ‘‘The bad guys have found ways not to go through Rankin County.’’

The reason, Lawrence said, is that there’s barely a stretch that’s not patrolled as the municipalities continue annexing and expanding their limits.

Even though the county is making fewer large interstate drug arrests, narcotics investigator Chris Barnes said drug use and dealing continue to spread into all communities.

For Barnes, the most important part of being a narcotics officer is keeping drugs out of the neighborhoods. He said he is most alarmed that children as young as 13 or 14 are selling marijuana and crack cocaine when about eight years ago they were more into just drinking beer at road stops.

‘‘There are no patterns. It’s not concentrated in any one area,’’ Barnes said. ‘‘We make as many drug arrests in the higher-class neighborhoods as the lower-class neighborhoods. ... Sometimes we catch a big guy, sometimes just the smaller guys.

‘‘But they’re like fish. You don’t know what you’re going to catch, but they’re all keepers.’’

AP-CS-11-12-07 0901EST

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