Government Takes $44,000 Cash From Man at JFK, No Crimes Charged But He Can’t Get It Back

Last month I wrote about the man who had his life savings confiscated at the airport because his carry on bag smelled like pot.

The man admitted smoking pot before coming to the airport. In some jurisdictions and in some circumstances that’s legal under state (although rarely under federal) law. He was traveling on a one way ticket, as he had spent months visiting family and didn’t have firm return plans when he booked his travel. And he couldn’t document where he had gotten all of his savings.

That was enough for the government to confiscate (and keep) the cash. There were no drugs in his possession, or in his checked bag. He worked consistently at low paying jobs, hardly the profile of a drug dealer, and claims to have saved the money over five years.

There were over 90 seizures alone at the Cincinnati airport in 2013 where this happened. So the seizure of $44,000 from a nail salon owner at New York JFK shouldn’t be surprising.

The salon owner, who says he “has never used, bought, or sold illegal drugs” saved the money over two decades and was bringing it to California to load to his two brothers there.

The nail salon owner, however, filed a claim in federal court to get the money back nearly 90 days after receiving the forfeiture notice from the DEA. That alone means he forfeits the money, because while the DEA doesn’t have to prove anything to take the money, one must either file a petition with the DEA within 30 days or file in federal court within 35 days to be heard. For someone not schooled in the intricacies of forfeiture law, and whose savings has already been taken away, finding a lawyer to help with such a filing can be a challenge — let alone to complete within a month.

He was traveling domestically, so there aren’t even reporting requirements and it’s perfectly legal to carry as much cash as you wish.

Still… don’t.

If you carry cash through the airport, you will come into contact with the TSA and potentially the DEA. And law enforcement can take it from you, just because. And it’s your burden of proof to demonstrate there was no connection to illegal activity, not the government’s burden to prove there was, in order to get it back.

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, 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. I’ve heard and read about horror stories like this for a long time, I will never understand why we as a society continue to take this abuse by the government. Government agencies should never profit from seizures and this would eliminate much of this behavior, but you cannot eliminate ENVY so there will always be someone in a low paying job who abuses their power by preying upon the weak and uneducated when they know that no one will help them.

  2. @Mark – first, this is DEA not IRS. Second, the IRS has already appeared to violate its own rules. Third, this case post-dates that statement. Fourth, structuring is an entirely separate concern from in-person seizures of cash for an inability to explain to a bureaucrat’s satisfaction the source of funds. Fifth, DOJ announced reforms are pretty toothless. Bottom line, this continues.

  3. That is really terrible. Our governments (federal, state, or local) should not be allowed to take your cash without valid justification. A suspicion isn’t enough in my opinion.

  4. & 7th – probably just easier to load up 8 Redbirds and liquidate once you reach your intended destination. 🙂

  5. No one carry there “life savings” around in a bag in cash. There are banks for that. Having friends in law enforcement I showed this to them and this guy’s story was b.s…. And I’m sure that this is his side of the story and not the laws. Yes the government does sieze money regularly from bad people and those people can file to get it back and all they have to prove is 51% the money is legit money.

    There are two sides to every story. Of course this guy’s side is I’m a great guy and this is uhhh… My life savings.

    End of rant.

  6. @Matt don’t you think there ought to be more required than merely carrying lots of cash to allow the government to take that cash away, when the act of carrying cash is not itself illegal?

  7. I’ve read–and don’t know this to be true, one of the surest signs a mailed package contains something illegal is greatly overpaid postage–something like putting $30 in postage on a package that requires $5. It’s because the person wants to make sure the illegal item doesn’t get opened for too little postage.
    That’s irrelevant to this post, but what is relevant is the number of seizures that occurred at Las Vegas McCarran airport for awhile. Gee, why would anyone be carrying a lot of cash to ,from, or through Las Vegas?

    I guess I’m really glad we have jury trials in this country , but with seizure cases, good luck getting there unless you do everything correctly. This guy did, and even got legal fees:

  8. For those who don’t think this administration is taking our freedoms away, this is a perfect example. This is about as UN-American as it gets and WE the PEOPLE need to put a stop to it because soon it won’t just be your cash they take.

  9. This guy’s an idiot for carrying that much cash. There’s no way his story checks out. You don’t want your money taken, don’t carry it in cash. Just like the other story, I don’t believe it for a minute

  10. @John Philip Sousa IV – Worth noting that this isn’t new to this administration, as I understand it the modern era of asset forfeiture began with the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984.

  11. I believe it. – You know that long line of people in line to use the BlueBird machine, or the Walmart money center? Sadly, they aren’t all just manufacture spending like we are. These people did not have bank accounts before, and many people still do not have one. Yes, it’s hard to believe, but it’s just a way of life for many low income families. Absolutely messed up the Gov’t can take money like this.

  12. So, so interesting how some judgmental people on this cite are assuming this guy was up to no good since he didn’t put his $ in the bank. I bet there are several million Greeks who think he’s wise as hell.

  13. Matt and Dave- you don’t seem to realize how many people don’t trust banks and bankers, particularly people who travel here from other countries or immigrants who have seen banks go under. In my opinion, people trust our government and law enforcement entirely too much. When mistakes are made, and they are made ALL THE TIME and with such utter apathy, they are rarely corrected and usually it takes YEARS.

  14. Matt you may well be right that the guy was not telling the truth. However what makes our country great, and different from totalitarian states, is that one is considered innocent until proven guilty. Maybe you should move to Russia, where Mr. Putin could use you in law enforcement!

  15. One reason this is a big problem is the confiscating agency gets to KEEP THE MONEY. This gives them an incentive to take it whether they think the person carrying the money is a criminal or not. Some law enforcement agencies even put the benefit to the the agency in their evaluation of officers.

    While there may be some valid reason for the law, it needs two changes. One, the person must be charged with a crime and subsequently convicted. Two, the money needs to go somewhere other than the confiscating agency.

  16. One must also consider the millions of illegal/undocumented folk here who do not have access to the banking system. Not unusual for these folk to transact business in cash or to be carrying large amounts of cash. Maybe if the Supreme Court paid more attention to the literal words of the fifth amendment than to the creative rewriting of laws we would all be better off.

  17. I am 100% with you Gary; this is outrageous and has been going along for years.

  18. “Why were you carrying all that money?”

    “Because it’s my money and it’s what I wanted to do with it.”

    That should be the end of the story, absent criminal wrongdoing proven in court.

  19. You can call me judgement. I’ll call you naive. If you were a cop and stopped a car and in it you saw a ski mask, a bloody tire iron, and a duck tape what would you do? Take all the stuff ad possible evidence or a crime or say have a good day sir? Same situation here. Carrying cash is not illegal but if you have it and can’t say where it’s from, what it’s for and your story is really thin chances are it’s not legit money. Any if it is then go to court and show them it is and Sue them afterwords.

    Sorry if there are typos.

  20. I try not to get involved in political arguments on the internet. But I do think that anybody discussing civil forfeiture could probably learn a great deal from reading this article from the New Yorker:

    Gary, as someone who has posted about this topic more than once now, you should definitely read it.

  21. It says the one fellow was going to loan the dough to brothers in LA. Why not just give them a check? Or, wire the money? Or bring money orders?

    Had he previously declared the income and paid taxes on it? I pay taxes on my earnings….why should someone who owns a nail salon have any favorable treatment? If you pay tax, why not deposit the money in the bank.

    Another scenario not really covered by this article was that potentially this chap was flying internationally (arriving at JFK) and didn’t declare the cash. No where does the article say this guy was on a domestic flight. I’ve seen several pax busted for excess undisclosed cash. Carrying over $10k is perfectly legal…you do need to declare it. Lying on a customs form is a crime.

    Finally, if the government seizes cash from you, you’d call an attorney within 30 days (probably same day)….unless you had something to hide (like not paying taxes on the dough in the first place).

  22. I absolutely understand why civil forfeiture exists. If they had to wait to get court approval to seize cash, then they would never be able to seize cash, but the rule for forfeiture should be the same as for holding the person who had the cash, that you have to charge them (not convict them, all the assets would be gone, but at least charge them) with a crime before you can hold them or their assets. So far as I know (and I could be wrong), this bizarre process is unique among western democratic nations. From what I understood of the law in Canada, where I come from and, as a banker, occasionally had to deal with asset seizures, Canadian law enforcement had to charge you with a crime when they seized your assets.

  23. Unfortunately, I feel like I’m reading a George Orwell story. I don’t want to believe it, but I know that the government is completely out of control, so it really does not surprise me anymore.

  24. Forgot the person’s name, but he was a former MP in UK Parliament. This man said it best, for me, and at least several of the posters on this subject.
    “In Europe, governments fear the people. In the United States, the people fear the government.

  25. “Gary Leff says:
    July 7, 2015 at 1:48 pm
    “Why were you carrying all that money?”

    “Because it’s my money and it’s what I wanted to do with it.”

    That should be the end of the story, absent criminal wrongdoing proven in court.”

    Bingo. I wouldn’t change a word.

  26. @sam your also smart enough not to carry 44k through an airport and arnt involved in illegal activity. Those involved in such activity usually make up a story so they seem legitimate like this fellow did. I can not believe a reasonable person would believe this money is legitimately this guy’s life saving and the rest of the story. How is the government wrong to not let someone keep the proceeds of illegal activity. Like someone said before if it was legitimate he would easily be able to prove it and get it back. Why are we defending criminals?

  27. If that money was ill-gotten, the LAST thing I would do is take it through security at the airport! More than likely just a story about a simpleton who naively assumed he lived in the land of the free and never gave it another thought. Gary is right: it’s his money and he should be able to keep it in cash and take it wherever he wants. Thanks REAGAN!

  28. Matt, from what I’ve seen (poker player) the government hardly ever returns all the money even if you can prove it is 100% legally yours. They add on various “processing” fees. No compensation for the cost of your lawyer (which you’re gonna need). And how do you even prove that this stack of money is from your last 12 months of pay stubs? Cash is fungible. They are preying on the people who can’t afford a good lawyer to get the money back. Drug dealers can probably afford a lawyer.

    For the guys getting shaken down coming in and out of casino towns (almost everywhere is a casino town now), its easy pickings, because the documentation of your winnings can be really sparse, especially if you’ve been playing cash poker. I have a line of credit at various casinos to get buyins, but cashing out can be problematic. Banks aren’t open during poker hours. If you don’t get followed and robbed in the parking garage or in your hotel room, you might still lose it at the airport, or the highway, or the train.

  29. @Matt, I would defend these “criminals” because a due process is supposed to exist. There is a burden of proof on government when removing the freedom of people. Your attitude would have likely put you in the good graces of wonderful organizations of the past such as: Soviet Russia, East Germany, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany. Each of these places did what our government is allowing. For the same reasons.

    The fact that you don’t think this is outrageous says a lot about your character, which you probably feel is above reproach. This is a fascist action supporting profit seeking criminal agencies, who directly benefit from stealing cash, without proving criminal acts or even charging people with a crime. The fact you see carrying cash as equivalent to a ski mask and a bloody tire iron is amazing. If I have a baseball bat, I’m not going to play baseball, but to beat someone? Someone drops a joint on your lawn, let’s take your house because you’re oviously selling drugs there.

  30. @Billy: Speculation does not equal fact. I don’t believe you get from point A to point B with a lack of evidence a crime has been committed
    @Matt : The two situation are completely different. The presence of cash is not evidence a crime was, has been, or may be committed. Comparing to implements covered in blood isn’t valid. Yeah, lots of cash is unusual, but a lot of people are unusual. I’d refuse to answer ANY question from law enforcement . In a traffic stop, I might ASK questions, but I do not answer them.
    @farnorthtrader: “if they had to wait…” . That’s why we have warrants and they can be obtained in almost no time.

  31. Nail salon owner…. Carrying massive amounts cash – I mean stupendously large sums of cash! – is common among small business owners throughout Asia. This scenario wouldn’t sound very unusual at all in, say, South Korea. I’m sure a lot of small shop keepers bring those tendencies to their US businesses. There are obvious tax reporting issues, but that’s between the business owner and the IRS. If cash were to be confiscated, an immigrant might place too much faith in the government officials and not call an attorney unit it’s too late. Having lived and worked in Asia, I can easily see how this scenario could arise for an immigrant business owner in the U.S.n

  32. @Matt, where does it say that this young man was convicted of illegal activity? Or that he is even under investigation for illegal activity? I really don’t care what your law enforcement friends think. Unless it is proven that this money was obtained through illegal means the government should not touch it. At the very least they should do what OFAC mandates banks to do and put the money in an interest bearing account until this resolved.

  33. “And it’s your burden of proof to demonstrate there was no connection to illegal activity, not the government’s burden to prove there was, in order to get it back.”

    WRONG! The Fourth Amendment:

    “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

    These seizures are ILLEGAL, and the criminals in uniform need to be charged with their CRIMES.

  34. @Bob – Nice! I read that article a few months after publication, and would strongly encourage anyone interested in the topic to read it as well. It’s extraordinarily thorough and written factually, without an overdose of opinion. Honestly, it probably deserves an award for its journalism.

    Now, from Coffin v. United States, when the Supreme Court formally and extensively established the presumption of innocence in American jurisprudence:

    “The principle that there is a presumption of innocence in favor of the accused is the undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary, and its enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law . . . The evolution of the principle of the presumption of innocence, and its resultant, the doctrine of reasonable doubt, make more apparent the correctness of these views, and indicate the necessity of enforcing the one in order that the other may continue to exist.”

    The situation seems like an attack on both the presumption of innocence as well as the standard of reasonable doubt (which, of course, is not the standard applied in civil forfeiture cases, because they’re brought against goods [which have no rights] rather than persons, but I digress). This seems, to me, to be the predictable result: a slippery slope. To borrow a term from foreign intelligence operations, this seems like blowback.

  35. @Alan8: It’s a civil case, not a criminal one. Big distinction.

    Here’s something non-partisan that explains Supreme Court history on the matter.

    Someone recently commented that only one justice had actually tried criminal cases. I’m not sure that’s true, but it’s interesting,

    OK, at some point, carrying massive amounts of cash does qualify for a “prove it or lose it” in the same way having a $500k home and reporting $20,000 in annual income for years gets your tax return revised by the IRS, if not resulting in criminal charges also (but I believe only about 2500 people are criminally convicted on tax charges each year; the standard is pretty high).
    The revision of tax treturns used to occur regularly with Las Vegas card dealers who reported only a small amount of their tips. Oscar Goodman negotiated a settlement with IRS, and now the tips are counted ad reported by the casinos.

  36. @Matt – so what is the threshold for confiscating money? $20, $200, $2000, $20000? This is where your subjective “I know a criminal when I see one” approach falls apart. There is no law against carrying money. Period. You think it is reasonable because in the “Matt book of Law” and no other, the guy somehow crossed a legal threshold. I can play the same game with you by looking over anything you have, asking for a receipt and confiscating anything where you do not have what I believe to be a legitimate receipt. Asset seizures without due process are un-American and morally bankrupt.

  37. @JimL: We’d all like to think that blindfolded lady on the outside of the courthouse holding two equally -weighted scales indicates the court system is about justice.
    It isn’t .
    As any self-respecting judge will tell you, “I don’t do justice, I do law.”
    Justice is a matter of opinion. Law isn’t . The fact circumstances supporting a legal decision are certainly the subject of weighing evidence, but make no mistake you’re in a court of justice.
    Criticize the people who wrote the laws because being as tough as possible on crime never got anyone kicked out of office.
    Here’s a corollary for thought: I’d say most people were in favor of the Iraq war at the time it began, even if we can now claim we favored it because we were misled. Now, how would you have felt if we had a draft and your child was going to have to go risk his/her life?
    Seems unrelated?
    I think the corollary is we are only interested in such matters when they directly affect us or someone we know.

    I think the solution is ,”Don’t wait until your kid is drafted to complain.”

  38. Why limit this to the airport? How about posting DEA agents at the entrance to banks and have them stop people who are coming in to make large cash deposits? Question them. Ask them where they got the cash from. Don’t like the answer!? Seize the cash! How about the entrance to a casino? Lots of whales come to gamble with 40k or 50 K. Let’s ask them too. Where does it end?

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