In June I wrote about a man who had his life savings confiscated because his luggage smelled of pot. It was one of over 90 such seizures in a year at the Cincinnati airport alone.
In July I wrote about a man who had $44,000 seized at New York JFK even though he was never charged with a crime. He couldn’t get his money back because it took him 90 days to get assistance jumping through all of the required hoops to file a petition for the funds to be returned — and the government only gives you 35 days to file in federal court.
Civil asset forfeiture isn’t just an American problem, last month I wrote about the male model who had $646,000 confiscated at Dublin airport (“Revenue officials immediately made a court application to retain the cash while they investigate[d] whether it is the proceeds of crime”).
More of us are at risk than you’d think. According to the Washington Post‘s “Wonkblog” If you fly between Chicago and L.A. you might be a drug dealer, according to the DEA.
In April of this year, two Drug Enforcement Administration task force members stopped a man named Issa Serieh at Los Angeles International Airport, asked him some questions, and seized $30,750 in cash off of him. They sent him on his way without charging him with a crime.
The DEA was waiting at a gate at LAX monitoring passengers getting off an American Airlines flight from Chicago because “Chicago is a known consumer city for narcotics and Los Angeles is a known source city where narcotics can be purchased”. The case is actually called “United States of America v. $30,750 in U.S. Currency” (you see, when you charge the property instead of the person, the property doesn’t have rights..).
The only other reason the DEA is able to offer for stopping the passenger they took the money from? The individual got off the plane with “a small backpack over his shoulder.” Boom. Suspicion.
Flying between Chicago and LA and carrying a backpack is enough for the government to stop you, search you, and confiscate your money. The DEA contends that this airline route is special — both Chicago and Los Angeles are “part of a federally-designated ‘High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.'” Of course so is New York, and cities comprising two-thirds of the country’s population. Flying between New York and DC or New York and Chicago (perhaps with or without a backpack) would suffice under the standard used by the DEA.
Techdirt points to a 1992 decision by 8th Circuit Chief Judge Richard Arnold (HT: Reid F.) that’s on point.
- Airports are on the verge of becoming war zones, where anyone is liable to be stopped, questioned, and even searched merely on the basis of the on-the-spot exercise of discretion by police officers. The liberty of the citizen, in my view, is seriously threatened by this practice. The sanctity of private property, a precious human right, is endangered. It’s hard to work up much sympathy for Weaver. He’s getting what he deserves, in a sense. What is missing here, though, is an awareness that law enforcement is a broad concept. It includes enforcement of the Bill of Rights, as well as enforcement of criminal statutes. Cases in which innocent travelers are stopped and impeded in their lawful activities don’t come to court. They go on their way, too busy to bring a lawsuit against the officious agents who have detained them. If the Fourth Amendment is to be enforced, therefore, it must be by way of motions to suppress in cases like this.
Whether this $30,000 had anything to do with drugs or not is beside the point (the traveler denies it and says the money was loaned to him by his uncle).
When we can be stopped in an airport merely based on the cities we’re flying between, covering two-thirds of the population in the country, and property can be confiscated without a person even being charged with a crime we’ve gone way too far in the scope of government power over our lives.