If You Fly Chicago-Los Angeles, the Government Thinks You May Be a Drug Dealer (and Can Take All Your Money)

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”).

Of course famous people who actually become abusive inflight don’t suffer such punishments.

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.

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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »



  1. I agree this is criminal behavior by the US government to steal money with no proof of wrongdoing. As an easy fix however, just carry a small amount of cash and the risk is negated. With free ACH transfers, cashier checks, etc. there is little reason to carry large amounts of cash through an airport.

  2. @Brad, you are missing the point, the US is not flipping Soviet Russia where merely existing is liable to be a state crime, or at least that’s not how it is supposed to be. Why is it that people so readily accept abhorrent government behavior by those we the people empower to govern, the founding fathers and all the many that made the nation what it is must be turning in their graves on how spineless the current citizenry is. It’s the same mentality that excuses massive spying and breach of privacy in the name of security, and they proclaim “I’m not doing anything criminal, so what if the government is all up in my e-mail!”

    This attitude will rue the day their way of living becomes subject to those government suspicions. It It will only be a matter of time before your electronic payments and frequent use of paypal or cashiers checks is deemed to have resemblance to how ISIS has been working with their sleeper cells.

  3. While I don’t endorse the use of civil asset forfeiture, one of the examples you cited is right out of the drug mule profile.

    “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.”

    Traveling alone – check
    no checked luggage – check
    small bag a person can keep close at all times – check
    significant amounts of cash w/o documentation – check
    traveling a route where drug muling occurs at a high rate – check

    That indicates a higher likelihood of being involved with illegal activity. If you don’t check baggage, there is a lower likelihood that your bag will be searched. There aren’t always drug dogs in airports these days and the swabs that TSA does at security checkpoints test for explosives, not drugs. If someone were to mule drugs or drug money using a commercial flight, that would be how they would do it.

  4. Two rhetorical questions:

    1. What would the Founding Fathers say?

    2. How many of us care what the Founding Fathers would say?

  5. Lost in this discussion is whether the individual was “detained” as that legal term is defined , and why, after having been stopped previously in a vehicle with weed—and perhaps having spoken to a lawyer at that time–he was stupid enough to answer any questions and not just keep walking.
    Also lost is the Wash Post’s use of journalists that can fully report the facts, or even use correct grammar:
    [Earlier this year, he was arrested in Nebraska for driving one of two cars that police officers found 128 pounds of marijuana in.]
    I wonder under what circumstances the search was conducted–with or without consent, for example.

  6. One more thing….no offense to anyone but if I’m getting really tired of people using the “we the people”‘ statement, I can imagine it wouldn’t go over very well with a judge.
    Taking three words and applying whatever context one wants debases the discussion.
    The interplay of the Constitution, 4th Amendment and various laws is complicated. Trying to simplify the discussion isn’t going to win the day in any decent discussion unless one chooses to listen only to views with which he or she agrees. Contrary to some views, as time progresses, things get more, not less complicated. You may win the day in an internet argument , but lose the battle where it matters.

    It took the Supreme Court to rule 9-0 that a GPS device could not be attached to your car without a warrant.
    Still, when the highway patrol stopped me for going “too slow in the fast lane” (I was doing 65 in a 70 mph zone on a dark, deserted highway) I figured quoting Terry v Ohio to a guy with a badge and gun was not likely a good idea. However, when it comes to a search, I draw the line….and hope the encounter in on dash cam.


  7. These police seizures are ridiculous so is the blatant ignorance of carrying that much cash period, whether it be in transit through an airport or out on the streets.

  8. I actually know little old ladies who carry that much cash. They’ve lived in the US for decades, but can’t shake the memories of losing life savings because of financial instability in other countries. They bring the cash during a visit to ask relatives to keep it so the money can be gradually gift it to their (financially irresponsible) kids after passing on.

    Suggestions to open bank accounts are not helpful to the poor who live outside the profit margins of financial institutions.

    Luckily, readers of this blog are not in those situations.

  9. Civil asset forfeiture is the government’s new way to flip “innocent until proven guilty.” They take your money/property, then you get to attempt to prove you weren’t doing anything wrong. It needs to be stopped. On a side note, so many of these forfeitures begin with searches that the individual should have never consented to. If a law enforcement officer asks to search your car/bag/person, your answer should always be “no.” If they want to look, make them get a warrant. That is the way the system is supposed to work.

  10. Who, in their right mind, flies (or even walks around) with that kind of money? Only people with enough money that it’s nothing to them, or people up to something nefarious..

    What is the most cash you’ve ever traveled with?

  11. @James – LOL, you can’t use “cash w/o documentation” as justification to search the guy to find that very cash.

    Everything the DEA knew BEFORE the search was true of the average business travel – single traveler with only a carry-on flying from a major city. By those standards Gary, myself, and probably the average blog reader is a suspicious drug-mule suspect too.

  12. Democrats have been in power for 7 years what do you expect from the government above all else crowd?? If a republican administration was in power for 7 years and this was happening the media would by crying bloody murder.

  13. this naming of the money as the defendant doesn’t exactly pass the smell test. this is criminal denial of due process. this isn’t just a slippery slope- it’s a cliff. where is the line drawn? driving a nice car? suspicious- hand it over: US Govt vs Mercedes S Class. you don’t look like you can afford a Rolex. bam- suspicious. US Govt vs Rolex Oyster Perpetual. US Govt vs blue Armani 42L, US Govt vs 24K gold chain with “pimpin ain’t easy’ medallion, etc…

    1 word should be stopping all of this: unconstitutional. this is why the founding fathers wrote the 4th Amendment- which the current government is wiping its ass with.

    why hasn’t this been stopped by a Supreme Court case?!?!?!?!?!

  14. Who walks around with that much cash? When I travel I usually have a $20 to tip the maids, bellman and shuttle drivers and in case I have to take a cab.

  15. @James let’s look at your criteria

    “Traveling alone – check
    no checked luggage – check
    small bag a person can keep close at all times – check”

    It’s also the profile of a business traveler.

    “significant amounts of cash w/o documentation – check”

    They didn’t know this until AFTER they stopped him.

    “traveling a route where drug muling occurs at a high rate – check”

    Los Angeles – Chicago? Business traveler: Check

    New York – Chicago? Business traveler: Check

    New York – DC? Business traveler: Check

    If the criteria would apply to a business traveler as well as a drug mule, it isn’t a limiting criteria that is suggestive of drug activity.

  16. It’s blatantly unconstitutional. Of course I would never carry around money like that, and it’s entirely possible he’s guilty of something, but assets should be forfeited only upon conviction of a crime. Disgraceful.

  17. If you don’t know anyone whose entire assets are held as cash, then congratulations, you are rich and so are your friends.

    If it hadn’t even crossed your mind that such people exist, then congratulations, you are an incurious republican voter.

    There are around 10 million unbanked households in the US. Despite attempts by state and federal governments to criminalize being poor, not all those 10 million households are unbanked because they’re breaking the law.

  18. @Mike. the least curious voters. BY FAR, are mindless liberal parrots such as yourself. a particular south park episode with liberals smelling their farts comes to mind. your clown has been in office for 7 years- the king of unconstitutional executive orders surely could have taken a few minutes from his divisive racist agenda to take care of this.

    and, NO… not a republican. any sane person watching what is happening to this country from both idiot extremes is probably a libertarian type in thought.

    @Gary: exactly. 1/2 the commenters are talking of not carry that much money. the govt agents only know AFTER they search you, your trunk, your bag, etc. i do MS. not unusual for me to have $15k in debit cards in my pocket. i can totally see “US Govt vs the shit in my pocket” if i look suspicious. who knows when leaving the US with a debit card will cross into the suspicious category: “US Govt vs the money they withdrew using my debit card”

  19. Didn’t realize, but that was me last week. DC to ATL, one way, no checked bags, small carry on. That would have been fun.

  20. I am having some trouble with people that thinking that large sums of cash are per se suspicious. Why would you want cash, off the top of my head:
    (1) Used to live in Greece and don’t want you money frozen.
    (2) Have an embarrassing man or woman problem and you want to pay the doctor in cash.
    (3) Play poker for a living.
    (4) Are a handy man or dance teacher and get paid in cash.
    (5) Problem with credit cards and using ATMs so you decided to go on a cash basis to keep from living beyond you means.
    (7) Went to the bank, and they asked you for all sorts of proof to open up a checking account. So you have not gotten around to it yet.
    (8) Are divorced and all your bank accounts have been shut down by you ex. Cash enable you to survive.
    (9) Traveling to the third world and know that they are cash economies.
    (10) Feel like it.
    (11) Don’t want the government to put ever one of your activity into a database.
    (12) Don’t want commercial internet companies to send you ads, so you are on a cash basis.
    (13) Are a real man, don’t eat quiche, and pay with cash.

    It is scary to me that anyone thinks it is “ok” for governments to seize large amounts of cash without specific cause under any circumstances. A number of people have defended it, which also worries me.

  21. Mike – How many of those unbanked households have $30,000, $10,000 or anything close to it? None of the ones I know (and I do know a fair amount in WV). If they do they can easily get free checking accounts. Or at least a Bluebird account. They also don’t fly much in my experience.

    Samantha – Will the “little old ladies” declare that cash if they ever have to meet Medicaid asset requirements? Most older people I know hoarding cash are thinking about that.

  22. Just Saying – As to reason number 4, “Are a handy man or dance teacher and get paid in cash”, why not be straight and just say tax evasion?

  23. I will say again, only in America. Every other western country can seize the money but the ownership of the money does not change and they still have to prove you committed a crime before they can keep it.

  24. @Samantha No, you don’t. Little old ladies who carry around $30K in cash will be quickly relieved of it, and not by the DEA or the TSA. I don’t doubt you know little old ladies who claim to have a lot of money to get attention… don’t we all? But if an older woman is really bragging about having that much cash, something is wrong. I suppose she could be working undercover, and it’s an entrapment scheme, but more likely she needs to see a doctor and get some health tests. When you’re old and not too strong is not the time to be bragging about how much cash you have. It’s a home invasion waiting to happen.

  25. United States is a racist piece of shit. Bunch of white, white collar folks got their cases for insider trading thrown out because the high court wanted the prosecutor to prove that the defendants benefited monetarily. The fact that they traded or passed on material non public information was not even in dispute. Using the same analogy drug dealers should not be prosecuted unless they are actually spending the money on themselves.

    An article in nytimes about how people want less penal justice and more medical care for addicts now that more and more whites are becoming heroin addicts. Till then it was all about putting them in jail.

    So what’s my point? If you want any law changed get more whites ensnared in it. Only then does its unfairness become apparent.

    Yeah I am wildly stereotyping but probably not that off base.

  26. “What would the founding fathers say?”
    “What the hell is ‘an airplane’?!”

    I’ll add to the list of legitimate reasons for cash hoarding: most banks CHARGE you to deposit cash into your own acct above an unspecified amount. I was so incensed the first time it happened to me, I quit depositing cash over 1k. (Yes, I still declare every cent, and it is listed in qb as “cash”.) Now that I’m in the cc game, I deposit it all eventually, in 1k increments, because I need to charge everything and pay the cc bills for the POINTS!

  27. Fight fire with fire – when out-of-line cops pull this stunt, find out where their spouse and children frequent and pull a Max Cady. They’ll get the message.

  28. @ PeachFront. I actually do know of these old ladies. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder, don’t need to be right, not trying to make inflammatory remarks. Just offering another data point.

    These are their life savings that they squirrel away, bit by bit. They do it because this is how they can continue to help their kids. The relatives who have bank accounts deposit the money and pay the taxes. For people like myself, we have estate planning. I’m grateful to not have to look for trustworthy people and have to ask for such big favors.

  29. Civil forfeiture is a real problem with real consequences. In case you missed John Oliver’s segment:

  30. @losingtrader If it was a deserted highway, what were you doing in the “fast” (inside) lane? For goodness sake, move over. Keep right, pass left, it’s not that hard.

  31. I think one of the more worrisome components of these instances, aside from the overly broad criteria that constitutes “suspicious activity”, is the lack of due process on either the front or the back end. Post 9/11/01, the airports have been transformed into a extra-legal zone where basic freedoms are suspended and due process is disregarded. And to top it off, the law seems to be administered by some of the least competent individuals, given much more power than their training has equipped them to handle. Combined with the dismal efficacy and remarkable intrusiveness of the screening procedures now used and I would say that this little bit of theater that takes place at the airport should be reconsidered.

  32. @Gary you say “Flying between Chicago and LA and carrying a backpack is enough for the government to stop you, search you, and confiscate your money.”

    This is false. Searches require a warrant absent special circumstances. What’s missing from this story is likely that the agents asked to search the bag and the passenger consented. If he did, that doesn’t detract from the injustice of civil asset forfeiture as it’s used today.

  33. @european driver:
    Sorry for the late reply, but Nevada does criminalize driving in the left lane as many states do. There is legally no such thing as a “fast lane” and you do not have to drive in the right lane where there are two lanes.
    I believe NY is different.as are many states. There is a Nevada seizure case that turned on this issue.
    The judge berated the US attorney’s office…but that involved other moving parts

  34. This is Issa Serieh. I love the work that Gary Leff is doing. I agree about the tsa and dea taking are personal civil rights. If there’s anything that I can do mr. Gary Leff to help. I’m all in!!!

  35. This Issa Serieh. I love the work that Gary Leff is doing. I do believe that the tsa and the dea violated my rights. I felt I was racial profiled. If there anyone I can to to help contact me iserieh@gmail.com

  36. The underlying issue is that the agencies get to keep the money forfeited, and it goes to augment their budgets. Local law enforcement here in Florida is fighting a proposal to require public disclosure of money and assets seized, and the uses to which the proceeds are put.

  37. Of course dealing with your own bank in cash makes you a money launderer. The gov’t is trying to make cash illegal and driving a car illegal. Oh, guns should be illegal too…for your safety.

Comments are closed.