Man’s Life Savings Confiscated at the Airport Because His Bag Smelled of Pot — And He’s Not Alone.

Vox ran a piece yesterday on a man named Charles Clarke who had his life savings confiscated at the Cincinnati airport because his bag smelled like pot.

Under civil asset forfeiture laws, the government can seize property and money even if the owner hasn’t been convicted of a crime. And in many cases it’s ‘finder’s keepers’ with the seizing agency keeping the bulk of the funds or goods.

Clarke, a 24-year-old college student, said losing that $11,000 was “devastating.” He’s been forced to live with his mom, trumping his plans to move closer to school. He’s fallen back on other family for financial support. And he had to take out loans for school instead of paying for it up front — for which he’s still in debt.

He brought all of his cash with him on the trip because “he didn’t want to deposit it in a bank or leave it in Florida while movers would be in his home.” There’s a large chunk of society that’s ‘unbanked’, that’s been exacerbated by Dodd Frank financial reform (and in particular the Durbin Amendment) which has reduced the profitability to banks for offering checking accounts, and that’s why products like Bluebird and Redcard exist.

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.

Under the law, a police officer only needs probable cause to take someone’s property or cash because he felt it was in some way gained or meant for criminal activity. After that, it’s on the property owner to prove law enforcement wrong.

And in the event someone goes through the time and expense to challenge the government, the standard is ‘preponderance of the evidence’ rather than ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ — the government gets to show it’s ‘more likely than not’ that the property was in some way tied to illicit activity. Property doesn’t get due process rights. That’s why when the FDA seizes items, it’s the items that are charged directly — such as UNITED STATES of America v. 76,552 POUNDS OF FROG LEGS and U.S. v. 24/94 KG BAGS, MORE OR LESS, OF AN ARTICLE OF FOOD. This case was United States of America v. $11,000.00 in United States Currency.

There were over 90 seizures at the Cincinnati airport alone in 2013. Walking through an airport puts you in contact with law enforcement, or pseudo-law enforcement which may detain you until officers they call arrive. And that means you aren’t really safe. The mere allegation that your stuff smells is justification for the government to take it all away from you, even if it wasn’t involved in the commission of a crime and even if you are never charged (or charged and are found innocent).

Heels First Travel asked, “What if your Uber or cab driver was transporting something illegal in the trunk before he handled your luggage?”

There’s a reason I always insist on the TSA changing into fresh gloves before swiping me when I’m pulled aside for a ‘random test’.

There were some minor reforms to Justice Department policy in January that prohibits federal agencies from keeping money for themselves ‘except where needed’ but this does little to stop cases like this one from repeating.

Be careful out there…

More on civil asset forfeiture, from Last Week Tonight:

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 had some trouble believing this story when all I saw was your headline on the front page of the blog. After seeing the full the story it appears completely plausible.

    Why the change?

    The front page headline is illustrated with a picture of a white middle-aged man (one who — sadly — looks kinda like me, to be honest) being arrested. It’s not until you get to the full story that you see that the victim is actually a young black man. Does anyone think the guy on the front page would have had his funds confiscated?

  2. LarryInNYC
    I suggest you learn more about asset forfiture. It happens to middle aged white people as well.

    Philly is really bad and there is now a famous story of a couple losing their house because of a $40 drug deal done on their property (very front of their yard) and neither home owner was a part of it.

    In Tennessee it’s known on certain highways that cops will pull you over and search your and any money they find they will keep the cash and then your car as well.

    Don’t think this applies to one gender, sex or race. This is a problem in our country that needs more news about it.

  3. Civil asset forfeiture based on the whim of a cop and corrupt courts where the pleb is guilty until proven innocent. Just another little beauty brought to us by “the war on drugs.”

    Oh, by the way, the newly appointed Attorney General has a long history of supporting this facsist behavior. Mercia, “land of the free and home of the brave” my a$s.

  4. @LarryInNYC my intention with the photo was just a guy grabbed at security, the first one that came to mind is an image from the movie Airplane! Although in this case the DEA flagged the checked bag and then went to interrogate the passenger. They didn’t know anything about his race, presumably, when they flagged him. That’s not to say of course that race doesn’t play a factor in these things although civil asset forfeiture is hardly race-limited.

  5. Serious violation of civil rights, for sure. The best description would be ‘armed robbery under color of authority’. And most people don’t know how arbitrarily this can occur, and how little help the courts will be if it does happen to them. So kudos for posting this.

    But I am wondering why this from the lead in “Here’s what you need to know so that this doesn’t happen to you” is not only not covered in the post, but that sentence is not even included in the full post.

  6. The New Yorker did a big piece about this a couple of years ago:

    “Patterns began to emerge. Nearly all the targets had been pulled over for routine traffic stops. Many drove rental cars and came from out of state. None appeared to have been issued tickets. And the targets were disproportionately black or Latino.”

    *Hilarious* photo of a rich white guy in a sports jacket though. Ha ha ha.

  7. The power the gov’t has is shocking. They can pretty much do anything they want and there’s nothing you can do about it. Just another benefit of a larger, growing government. But, you know, it’s for our own safety…

  8. Some academics have proposed eliminating cash entirely so that all transactions can be monitored and taxed. That seems impractical to me, but confiscating cash whenever the authorities find it is both practical and profitable for them. The effect may be similar to banning cash.

    Whether you hate the policy or you are one of the few who like it, you have to admit that people who carry large sums of cash are more often than not engaged in something illegal, even if it’s only evading sales tax on a Craigslist purchase.

  9. @nsx:

    ‘… you have to admit that people who carry large sums of cash are more often than not engaged in something illegal…’

    Please cite source or evidence that proves this statement.

    Until then, I don’t have to ‘admit’ anything.

  10. Gary, I love your blog and this, like so many civil forfeiture cases, is a travesty of justice. But the political commentary…! The subject of this case said he didn’t want to put his money in a bank, not that he was “unbanked” and unable to do so. But we get Dodd/Frank/Durbin bad, blah blah blah. Meanwhile, which freedom-loving president was the guy who went all-in on the “war on drugs” which, as others have commented here, was a major driver of the explosion of civil forfeiture? Hey, if you’ve ever flown out of DCA, you know his name!

  11. @KidStarA – I don’t think any President who ‘went all-in on the “war on drugs” could be very ‘freedom-loving’ so I’m really not sure what you’re getting at with this.

  12. How have we gotten to a place where this police-state tactic is allowed when even the new Attorney General says she has doubts about the way civil forfeiture is being used by some jurisdictions?

    The answer is the same for how the US lost its place in the world as a modern nation and is now viewed as retrograde with lower quality of life ratings than many 3rd world countries, a nearly disappeared middle class, and apartheid racial conditions.

    Starting about 20 years ago the farthest right wing on earth took over the AM radio dial and phonied up a cable “news” network to drive the country so far right that slave labor conditions are now prevalent. This couldn’t happen in any other nation but then no other country has as 1/3 of its population willfully ignorant know-nothing rednecks who will vote against their own economic interests just to get off their prejudices. This is where we are, and this is where we’re stuck.

  13. @Greg – Where are these slave workers that you speak of? You think America has Apartheid racial conditions? I don’t think you know what Apartheid was.

  14. Anyone who works full time yet can’t support themselves much less a family, has to go on public assistance to be able to eat, is suffering under a system so disgraceful for the richest country that we are no longer respected anywhere due to this. And yes, they teach their kids in schools in the modern nations like the UK, Australia and Spain exactly who enabled this here and that the American Redneck is a destroyer of civilization. Only here are we willfully ignorant of it.

  15. @Greg – This is a frequent traveler blog, not your own personal social soap box. Nobody cares what you have to say here.

  16. Funny that is. I agree with everything in the first paragraph of Greg’s rant… then of course he goes off the rails into well parroted cliche that is actually taught in our ‘government’ schools (although taught in nicer terms there). These boogeyman-rednecks have just about as much influence and power as the folks he claims the discriminate against (hint, not much at all).

    Why not follow the money for a change? Ever look at Wall Street? How about K Street? Folks who never participated in the Wall Street casino (i.e. neither gained nor lost) were forced to help socialize the losses of billionaires in 2008/2009 (who had already privatized their gains when the market was going their way). Why is it that the Northern Virginia suburbs has been one of the few areas where people have made great economic gains while the rest of the country flounders? I can assure you it’s not because some ignorant redneck voted for it in order to gratify some desire to rollback the Civil Rights Act.

  17. The bankers and Wall Street wouldn’t have enough votes to sway any election. The GOP was able to dupe a hundred million know-nothings to vote against their own economic interests just out of spite and prejudice. This is the story of what happened to America as taught in the schools of the modern nations like UK, Spain and Australia. In one of those countries could financial interests sway enough votes; only the US has a ready-made third of voters who are utter dupes, the most ignorant people on the planet. Their flag is the Confederate flag.

  18. Another excellent example for the merits of Bitcoin. And before people jump on it’s volatility, have a look at CoinJar hedged accounts. And while you’re at it, look at for an Amazon use-case that will save you more than your 5x back on GCs.

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