Terry Rolin is 79 years old. He grew up skeptical of banks, and kept his life savings of $82,373 squirreled away in his house. His daughter came to visit from Boston and help him downsize into an apartment. They agreed she would set up a joint bank account for him.
Banks were closed for the day. Her flight departing Pittsburgh was early the next morning. So she had to take the cash with her. She had the presence of mind to check online with the government that there’s no limit to the cash you can carry on a domestic flight.
However the cash was spotted at security and she was asked about it. Now aware of the cash, she was questioned at her boarding gate. She explained why she had the money. The DEA agent insisted she call her father to verify the story. Her father was woken up and confused (which is why she helps her father manage his money!), the DEA decided that his story didn’t match hers perfectly, and the government seized the man’s life savings.
Brown said the loss of the savings has prevented Rolin from getting treatment for painful tooth decay and gum disease and kept the family from fixing up his pick-up truck, which is his only means of transportation. Rolin is living on retirement benefits from a job as a railroad engineer.
Neither the man nor his daughter were ever charged with a crime, but the government decided to permanently keep the cash.
Today the non-profit Institute for Justice filed a class action lawsuit over TSA and DEA policies of confiscating money from travelers at airports. Here’s the lawsuit alleging that the DEA’s sole criteria for seizing cash that it’s over $10,000, that they do so without probably cause and this violates constitutional protections against unlawful search and seizure. The lawsuit seeks a return of the $82,373 in seized funds and an injunction – at stake is what’s believed to be over $200 million a year in seizures just at the nation’s 15 largest airports.
Four years ago I wrote about a man who had his life savings confiscated because his luggage smelled of pot. It’s enough for your Uber or Lyft driver’s vehicle to smell like pot on the way to the airport for the government to seize your cash. This was one of over 90 such seizures in a year at the Cincinnati airport alone. (Full disclosure: I became an expert witness in the case but it didn’t go to trial, the government backed off and returned the man’s money.)
Around the same time I covered 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.
I’ve also written about a nurse who was carrying cash with her to start a medical clinic in her home country. She knew she had to declare when she was bringing more than $10,000 cash into the country. But she didn’t know – and most people don’t know – that you have to declare when taking more than $10,000 cash out of the country. She was never charged with any crime, but the government insisted she waive her right to sue and allow them to keep some of her cash to ‘cover their costs’ incurred during the harassment. Hers was one of 278 cash seizures just at the Houston airport that year.
The federal government maintains that flying between Chicago and Los Angeles is itself enough to suspect passengers of carrying drug money.
Long before 9/11, which caused things to get so much worse, then-8th Circuit Chief Judge Richard Arnold wrote in a decision (1992):
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.
More on civil asset forfeiture, from Last Week Tonight: