A 22 year old recent college graduate flew from Orlando to Los Angeles on American Airlines via Charlotte. He says he was going to LA to look for an apartment. He’d visited LA 15 times in the past 18 months.
While connecting in Charlotte the Department of Homeland Security flagged his checked bag, and took all his cash out of it. He says he packed his savings – $23,000 – which came, he says, from his father, graduation gifts, and jobs he’s had. And the government took it all, without charging him with any crime.
The news story on the seizure is packed with things left unsaid.
- The government was “flagging bags headed into drug source states, like California” – heading to California is reason alone for suspicion! But why would travel to a drug source state be suspicious, wouldn’t it be leaving such a state that would cause a flag? In fact New York and Chicago are known ‘drug consumer’ cities and so the government can stop you and take your money if you’re traveling to New York or Chicago, too.
- “Several different drug-sniffing dogs hit on the man’s two suitcases.” The suitcases contained cash and cash may contain traces of drugs. In any case, dog handlers often lead dogs to ‘alarm’ on whatever they want to search.
- “Agents say they seized the cash and put a warrant in the man’s suitcase.” The suitcase was the target of the investigation, rather than the suitcase’s owner, because there’s no legal rights or protections for inanimate objects. Going after a person entails a requirement of proof.
- “[D]rug agents said his travel doesn’t match his story. They tracked 15 flights from Florida to California over the past year and a half.” Being a semi-frequent traveler is suspicious? Before moving to Austin I visited roughly monthly for a year, gaining more confidence in my decision each time.
- “The U.S. Attorney’s office just filed paperwork to keep the money and has not charged the man.” There doesn’t need to be any proof of wrongdoing for the government to keep the cash. In fact the person from whom the money is taken has to prove lack of a crime. And it’s often far costlier, and with heavy bureaucratic hoops to jump through, in order to do so. That’s why the government usually winds up keeping most of the omney, returns a portion of it in exchange for a promise not to sue.
- “There are no laws against flying with large amounts of cash, but federal agents can question how you got it. When they do, they can take your money and keep it.” And there’s very little you can do about it.
There were no drugs found. There was no evidence of wrongdoing other than carrying the cash itself which is perfectly legal. This was a domestic flight. But did you know you have to declare carrying cash greater than $10,000 when you leave the country – not just when you enter?
Nonetheless the American Airlines passenger won’t get their money back because they had the bad luck of connecting in Charlotte and because the government decided travel to California is presumptively tied to drugs.