6 Facts About The U.S. Government Confiscating Cash From Passengers When They Travel

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.

  1. 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.

  2. “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.

  3. “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.

  4. “[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.

  5. “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.

  6. “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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Being a college graduate, and he does not know how to deposit money into a national bank like Wells Fargo, Bank of America and have access to his money anywhere he goes or a local bank, then ask them to issue an official bank check? Who would carry all savings as cash to travel like this? Not even a dumb person, let alone a college graduate.

  2. “Drug agents said his travel doesn’t match his story…“ and “Several different drug-sniffing dogs hit on the man’s two suitcases” kind of says it all. But getting caught with $23,000 cash in certain airports, like MIA, wouldn’t cause a stir when they are more concerned with suitcases filled with illegally mined South American gold being wheeled about. Because of proximity to Latin America, with its gold deposits and drug traffickers seeking to launder money, Miami became a major hub for gold laundering.

  3. I find the U.S. government to be a disgusting entity. We all like to talk about Russia, China, and Iran but truth is we’re no better. Our government is downright evil, worse even then the mafia and other crime syndicates.

  4. Makes no sense in 2020 to travel domestically with $23k unless you’re going to a different city to liquidate. Traveling with GCs is safer. Won’t alert dogs.

  5. Extremely disturbing, and very true, with the exception of this sentence: “And there’s very little you can do about it.” In fact, there is a lot you can do about it, but the government has very specific procedures which must be followed so that your money isn’t defaulted to the government. People can get their confiscated money back, but it is extremely important that they contact an attorney ASAP so that filing deadlines aren’t missed.

  6. So the U.S. government is now a Terrorist Organization. You are Guilty until proven innocent.
    Most cash has some residual amount of drugs on the bills. So he must be guilty, right?

  7. The currency laws work like gun laws: when you can’t catch the criminals in the act, you catch the handmaidens of criminal activity, which are cash and guns.

    A kid who flies cross-country monthly with huge sums of cash in his checked bag is almost certainly up to no good.

    The law may have flaws, but this kid is not your poster child for that whine.

  8. And they wonder why they are sometimes looked upon as the enemy. This is a pure case of police misconduct and should be met with severe punishment. What good is a police officer that can be judge and jury without a trial.

  9. Soooo… this guy put cash in his checked bag and expected to ever see it again? That’s like sending cash through the mail.

    And this is a college grad that apparently can’t figure out a bank account with anyone who has branches in Florida and California where he can hold his money? Huh?

    Still gives them no right to take it, but this all sounds sketchy as hell.



    Prepare for yet MORE outrage if the demokkkrats manage to steal the election!

  11. Cash in checked bag? I always assume that if I check a bag there is some employee or an airline or a government agency who wants a souvenir.

  12. Forfeiture cases always draw attention and lead many to have righteous indignation over government actions. However, there is almost always more to the story. I’ve read other accounts of this situation and, while Gary’s points are correct, there is more evidence he wasn’t some innocent student who had his money held. Based on his travel patterns he was almost certainly involved in the drug industry.

    Also, as others stated, there is no reason EVER to be traveling with over $10,000 cash (usually nothing below this would set off alarms). For one thing amounts over $10,000 by themselves could indicate money laundering and trying to circumvent the reporting requirements of banks for transactions over $10,000. This sets off alarms. Also, with national banks, ATMs and credit availability there is NO REASON to travel with huge amounts of cash. I like to gamble (still do even during pandemic) and the most I would take to Las Vegas is $10,000. I have casino lines of credit established in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and other casino locations so I don’t have to travel with as much money and there are also Bank of America locations nearby where I can get access to my funds.

  13. He should not have been traveling with that much cash. Whether or not he was planning to use the money for a crime is not relevant to the fact that no one should be carrying that much cash when they do not need it for immediate cash expenses. It is foolish and he bears some responsibility.

    That aside, the government is playing with the rules here. Do you think the government would charge a suitcase full of drugs with a crime and let the owner walk away? No. So why do they charge the suitcase with a financial crime when they don’t charge it with a drug crime? It is clear they want to keep the money and people have more rights than suitcases so it is easier for them to “confiscate” (steal) it from a suitcase.

  14. The guy deserves to have his cash confiscated because only an idiot is going to travel with that much cash *inside* the U.S.. I can understand the need to bring extra cash to certain foreign countries…and maybe even that much cash to certain 3rd world foreign countries. But there’s no excuse for it in the U.S.

    The guy probably was a cash mule because most 22 year olds like their plastic and tap and pay handsets way too much to be bothered with carrying lots of cash. I might expect this behavior from an octogenarian who was raised during times when stuffing cash under a mattress was a thing. But not from someone just out of their teens. It’s way too fishy to be taken at face value.

    Government seizure laws are insane and badly in need of reform. But this kid should not be the poster child for that cause…

  15. @Amazing Larry
    Actually all this illegal and clearly unconstitutional inspection and confiscation is a direct result of the Republican “War on Drugs”. Which itself is responsible for the growth of drug gangs, mass incarceration and the growth of addiction.

  16. It’s totally irrelevant how stupid this guy was or how suspicious it was.
    If the government can’t or won’t prosecute him, the Feds are nothing more than common thugs and mobsters.

  17. So there was a conspiracy to have the drug dogs pick his bag, He was in college, and recently graduated, and traveling pretty much monthly from Florida to California. He put $23K in a checked bag (mostly in $20 bill bundles). He does not declare the cash (over $10K).

    You address the points separately, but all things considered this is a pretty rare 22 year old. If he was in the practice of declaring his cash I would love to know how many of the other trips he carried similar cash. I guess that much in twenties or so would get spotted easily in carry on luggage

    Perhaps nothing illegal (except of he didn’t declare), but I hear quacking,.

  18. “While connecting in Charlotte the Department of Homeland Security flagged his checked bag, and took all his cash out of it.”

    Who is actually stupid enough to put $23,000 or even $2,300 in a checked bag?

    Especially if that person has allegedly flown uh “15 times in the past 18 months”?

  19. Civil Asset Forfeiture is part of the convoluted system called the government which we (real) conservatives rally against and hate with all our hearts. Unfortunately, many conservatives don’t realize cops are the big government bureaucrats who enforce the liberal law and liberal order which deprives Americans of many fundamental freedoms. All laws take cops who consciously decide to enforce them instead of saying no. All a cop has to do is not stop someone for not wearing a seat belt, don’t arrest someone for possessing drugs, don’t arrest someone for gun control, and don’t take people’s money. Civil Asset Forfeiture is the result of the evil war on drugs that says you don’t own your own body and don’t have a right to do with it as you please. Many laws like civil asset forfeiture have been enacted with the war on drugs as a pretext. Cops, judges, prosecutors, and rubber stamp juries go along with it. Remember, this is why we want less government, less laws, less criminalization, and less bureaucracy. People may have good intentions when they support more government intervention in our lives but this is what we inevitably will get. Prohibition proved to be a disaster. The war on drugs just the same.

    The Right Wing hates cops just as much as the left wing. We just have different reasons and don’t support burning down private property and attacking civilians that have nothing to do with it. All the attacks on civilians lately have caused Americans to split up under two banners (BLM & Back the Blue); both are harmful and logically inconsistent (the left supports nanny state laws & big govt. that cops enforce; the right doesn’t support big government but supports the cops who enforce it).

  20. @Jackson Henderson
    As an old school liberal e.g. one that believes in personal freedom and responsibility, I reject the assertion that “liberals” support burning and looting and that all the violence comes from the left.

    In fact, whilst violence to businesses and property has occurred more from the left, extreme violence against people (including mass murders) has almost exclusively come from the right. Also, I don’t hate the police and fully support police actions and officers that do not murder people for minor infractions, In addition, it is disingenuous to rant about “personal freedom” yet continue to jail people for smoking pot and trying to tell women what to do with their bodies.

    The fact is that the ideologues on the far right and far left have more in common than their intrinsic value systems would suggest. Both hate the free press, both wave their flags but inherently hate our democracy, and both have surrendered their ability to reason. The adage: “Don’t bother me with the facts, I have already made up my mind” is the unspoken mantra of both ends of the political spectrum.

  21. @Jackson Henderson,
    All your comments on this blog are the same. It’s starting to become tiresome.

  22. I love living in a country that like most other banana republics pretty much do what they want to do with the blessing of the judiciary. The cops get the crumbs and ‘voila, another fckd American that can’t afford to go up.against the system.

    Given all the financial laws that have been broken or ignored by the big fish isn’t a big deal when their legal bills end up rarely if ever even put a dent in their profitability.

    It’s now changed into how can we lobby to further minimize responsibility for sketchy acts and having friends in high places.


  24. @Dee
    @Amazing Larry
    Well your nonsensical reply was incoherent so I’m not sure how to write a rebuttal, but A-L likes it! Also, I hope you found the CAPS-LOCK key for your shout.

    Here is a short history lesson: The Reagan/Bush administrations wrecked the economy and sent the country into a mini-recession in 1990. Clinton fixed it, gave Congress a BALANCED BUDGET and handed it over to GW Bush with an unemployment rate at historic lows. GW Bush sent the country into the worst economic downturn since the great depression. Obama/Biden turned the economy around. and gave Trump a booming stock market and very low unemployment.

    Are you smart enough to see where we are now? Or, are you the type: Don’t bother me with the facts, I have already made up my mind?

  25. @Gary

    Next time you post an article like this, can we have [POPCORN NEEDED] In the title, because the comments are, by far, the most amusing thing I’ve read today, only bettered by the presence of the aforementioned popcorn.

  26. I run poker tournaments, players who play in the $10,000 to $25,000 Buy in Events carry bags of cash. There is no easy and quick way to get that amount of money out of a bank, especially on a weekend when we run these events, and wiring money from one casino to the next takes time.

    We have players who will buy into the $10,000 event three or four times and play big cash games, not uncommon for these guys to have $150,000 or more in cash on them.

  27. I am a 60+ y.o. guy in the collectibles business. Very often people selling to me want cash.

    The assumption that large cash transactions by people traveling on planes must necessarily be nefarious is asinine.

  28. Now that we have another Constitution “Originalist” on the Supreme Court, can we expect that these search and seizure actions will be declared unconstitutional ?

    I’m not holding my breath, Originalists are only real Originalists when it suits their politics.

  29. @WileyDog

    I hope so. Her record the last 7 months has been astoundingly good. She joined in a circuit decision that denied qualified immunity to a prison guard. The right has become the biggest advocates for civil liberties (which include religious freedom).

  30. Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? His travel history is inadmissible evidence that he’s guilty. Either the money has a track record of savings from a sale or job or it doesn’t. Governments have learned that seizing cash can be a lucrative business for them because they get to keep some if not all it. I’m fine for seizing illegal money, just give the money holder a process to get ALL of the money returned if it’s taken for any probable cause.

    Let’s keep party platforms and bashing out of the threads. I’m all for discussion and commentary but useless broad statements about political parties “did this” or ” this will happen if candidate x is elected” don’t add any value.

  31. He should have gotten all big bills and carried in his pocket or carry on not a check in bag

  32. I remember hearing a story back around 1979 about a professed drug mule. It was stated that the kilos of cocaine was put in a spare tire (by other conspirators that worked at the rental car company) and the tire was reinstalled in the trunk. This person flew into Miami and “rented” a car and drove back to Aspen, Co. This person stated that if the drugs were discovered he could say he was just an unknowing drug mule as the car was turned in properly to the rental company and the drugs were removed sometime later by other conspirators. This worked for awhile but the feds became aware of this scam and started arresting the drug mules and charging them. The feds believed this scam for a little while but if you flew into Miami and rented a car and drove back there was a good chance you would get arrested.

  33. I remember hearing a story back around 1979 about a professed drug mule. It was stated that the kilos of cocaine was put in a spare tire (by other conspirators that worked at the rental car company) and the tire was reinstalled in the trunk. This person flew into Miami and “rented” a car and drove back to Aspen, Co. After the vehicle was turned in, this person stated that if the drugs were discovered he could say he was just an unknowing drug mule as the car was turned in properly to the rental company and the drugs were removed sometime later by other conspirators. This worked for awhile but the feds became aware of this scam and started arresting the drug mules and charging them. The feds believed this scam for a little while but if you flew into Miami and rented a car and drove back (to most any location) there was a good chance you would get arrested if the SHTF.

  34. Whatever happened to keeping an open mind until all of the facts are known and verified. We have one dude’s account of something and y’all are going crazy with all kinds of accusations. This is why we have a court system.

    But here are some facts that we know:

    The guy put $23,000 in cash in a suitcase. The guys an idiot – we KNOW that. Drug dealers and criminals are idiots – we know that! Make the connection for those of you wanting to jump to conclusions.

    The guy had a lot of suspicious activity going on. It’s all phrased as harmless and benign here. But again, you don’t know all of the surveillance or tools used by law enforcement to tag the guy. You readily accept a blogger’s story and the guy’s story – whom we have already identified as being an idiot. That is who you immediately sided with.

    As Joe Biden would say, “Come on, man!” Even Sleepy Joe knows to use his son to launder money.

  35. @Amazing Larry

    Better pick up your mic. Did you even read the article?

    To quote directly from the article:
    “The RICO Act wasn’t designed to be part of the war on drugs; it was just meant to target criminals. But when Richard Nixon took office, the RICO Act was one of a number of new tools that the members of his newly created Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (precursor to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)) could use to fight his drug war. Combined with other legal innovations, such as no-knock raids and mandatory minimum sentences, Nixon and his administration would cure America of the drug menace.”

    :”Reagan brought the FBI into the drug war, and he gave the director, William Webster, a mission. His agents would use the powers of the RICO Act to find drug rings and take away their assets. ”

    Republicans did it. So it is clearly disingenuous to blame Biden put you can’t win a debate without twisting the truth. My turn to “drop mic”

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