Nationwide Class Action Filed Against TSA & DEA For Seizing Travelers’ Cash At Airports

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:

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. It’s an ongoing abomination and an outrage that apparently has had “bipartisan” support through successive administrations, as evidenced by that judge’s wise words back in 1992.

  2. Good post, and especially good that you included the John Oliver link. As usual, that episode is very funny and highly informative. The unjustified seizures of cash at airports are worth highlighting in and of themselves, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg of what’s essentially theft-by-cops in many contexts across the United States.

    Some of the political or quasi-political posts here understandably generate lots of debate in the comments. But I think this issue is one that most folks can agree on, whatever their political persuasion. (Now watch, you’ll get a load of critical comments!)

  3. She was at a minimum a tax evader, maybe involved in other criminal activities.

    But I do love the standard excuses….

    “I didn’t have time to stop at a bank so I decided to travel with 90k cash”

    “He was old/confused, grew up in the depression, wasn’t from this country, didn’t trust the banks/government, didn’t trust every other form of currency out there, bla bla bla.”

    Zero sympathy as I am preparing my return where I’m declaring all my income.

  4. @Steve: Where do you have any proof of tax evasion? I knew someone back 7-8 years ago would take their paycheck, cash it, and hold onto the cash. Still filed taxes, etc. Just because they don’t trust banks doesn’t automatically equal tax evasion.

  5. @steve
    “She was at a minimum a tax evader, maybe involved in other criminal activities.”

    You should probably contact the government and let them know you have evidence in this case since you sound like such an upstanding citizen who would never partake in libel.

  6. Hey Steve, it all depends on when you grew up. My dad’s uncle grew up in the depression and saw how many people’s life savings were lost when banks closed. He became a successful tortilla baron and distrusted banks. He had so much cash in house when he died, that it was estimated to be over a million dollars.

  7. @Gary. Civil Forfeitures are a disgrace. I am glad you are shining a light on the practice.

  8. Gary this is an excellent post, but I’m interested in what the “Government’s side of the story is”. Do they offer an explanation or rationale for this practice?

    I’d also be interested in the incentive – who gets the money after it’s seized? If it just disappears into a Federal pot of money and nobody gets credit for it etc or are there bonuses/quotas/funding needs that are directly tied to these seizures?

    Just curious about the broader picture, it’s hard to understand how something like this has been going on for decades without being shut down, especially if there’s no incentive or rationale for it?

  9. @Jeff government just says they do not comment on pending litigation, the incentive is ‘catch and kill’ agencies general get to keep a share of the proceeds

  10. Great post, Gary! It is time that – if we are to be a free country anymore – we require things like probable cause, due process, presumption of innocence, and all those inconvenient things that totalitarians don’t like.

    In the meantime it’s a warning not to carry a lot of cash with you, ever, in the United States. These people do not need any legitimate reason to steal it from you.

  11. @Gary, I totally agree with you on this. The government routinely, almost systematically, engages in every profitable activity that they prohibit other people from doing (shakedowns, protection rackets, outright theft of cash, usurious interest and unreasonable penalties, gaming, etc.)

    However, it’s not correct to simply say “Banks were closed for the day. Her flight departing Pittsburgh was early the next morning. So she had to take the cash with her.”

    The correct way to report that is “She says that banks were closed for the day and with her flight departing Pittsburgh was early the next morning, she had to take the cash with her.”

  12. Not just airports, but law enforcement agencies are trained on seizure techniques.
    Example: You have $20k, and are driving cross country. You are arrested for a drug related offense (whether or not any drugs are present — just having cash means that you could be ready to purchase). You get taken to jail. The charges are dropped if you abandon the “evidence”.
    Robin Hood in reverse. Only they do the robbin’.

  13. Let me see:
    (1) If you have $20K in cash, it could be declared drug money and seized in a procedure called civil forfeiture. Why, because have $20K in cash is per se suspicious. No other reason.
    (2) If you take money (any amount) out of your bank, it could be flagged under money laundering laws, if it is outside you normal pattern of withdrawals. The banks are required by money laundering laws to create a cash profile of every customer, to determine unusual activity.
    (3) If you take out $10K or more, it will be reported on, due to bank money laundering rules.
    (4) If you decide to avoid being monitored, and take $2K, five times, that is illegal, even if you did not plan to use the money illegally. It is called structuring.
    (5) If you have money in the bank, it is common for judges (in, say divorce court) to freeze all your bank accounts.
    (6) Then you have Harvard Economist, like Ken Rogoff, who wants to ban cash altogether.
    (7) Oh, by the way, if you bank feels your cash withdrawals are suspicious, they put a hold on them.

    This stuff is really scary. Your money is not really yours.

  14. Thank you Gary by bringing more light to the national scandal of asset seizures without due process.
    When I was a young man, it was generally held that one could trust a police officer (mostly) and that they would treat you fairly if you were in trouble. Maybe not in all parts of the US, but, I think, true enough.
    Today? The PoPo are a bunch of murderous thieves. God help you if you are black and have a bunch of cash…It behooves us all to stay out of their clutches and to never, ever, talk to the police. As evidenced perfectly here:
    As to the TSA: Well they are bunch of refugees from welfare. Why are you surprised when they steal from you? I always burns me when they go through my bag to find my UK car park/toilet change to see if I am smuggling gold coins as they pimp for Treasury. But of course, it’s for my safety…..

  15. @Steve

    I call BS on you saying that woman was tax evader, etc. So it is ok to take the all that money, $82K, just because the government feels like it? Every day America becomes more and more like police state. It is people like you that allow it!

  16. “Civil forfeiture” of cash by law enforcement across the US is a sign of how uncivilized government has become from the top to bottom. Seizing an individual’s assets even in the absence of a court ruling (about the individual whose assets are seized by law enforcement personnel) is the kind of garbage that is done by tinpot dictatorships and across America. It’s long overdue that this farcical “law enforcement” method is eliminated and people harmed by it have much easier ways to reclaim that which has been taken from them and be able to do so without any sunsetting of their rights to do and become retroactive to the 1980s at least.

  17. Would everyone here be so outraged if the daughter had done something ignorant and reckless which didn’t involve the law enforcement or government, like losing the money, or gambling it away? Carrying cash in this day and age is stupid. Carrying that much cash is idiotic. Carrying that much cash in an interstate flight is moronic. And I don’t feel sympathy for those who engage in moronic behavior.

  18. What’s moronic behavior is defending government seizure of free people’s assets when the free person committed no crime and wasn’t subject to a court ruling ordering the seizure of assets. That is unless you don’t value freedom and the right of free people to be free from government’s warrantless searches and seizures.

  19. Unless the government has proof that you obtained the funds illegally, they have no constitutional right to confiscate your cash. Not to mention these cops that find you with large sums of cash in your vehicle and decide to confiscate it – even if you were not charged with a crime. If the authorities have probable cause to believe that the funds are drug-related, then charge the carrier and prove it in court. But they often don’t because there is no proof.

    This entire forfeiture policy is an outrage and I hope that these lawyers prevail in their class action suit against the TSA and DEA. And like someone said above, it’s the first time I recall saying that.

  20. Spot on GUWonder! “Useful idiot” Steve moves the goalposts. Now, instead of this individual being a “tax evader” or “involved in other criminal activities”, they’re merely “stupid”. Granted, it’s not the best decision to carry around large amounts of cash, but when we attempt to justify government malfeasance, due to a lapse in judgement, the light of ignorance shines on those defending the action.

  21. Civil forfeiture became acceptable in the 80s as part of that ever so successful war on drugs. Then got expanded in 2001 to keep the terrorists broke…
    Restrictions were added by the Justice department under the Obama administration, but were reversed by the Trump administration.
    If the lawsuit makes it’s to the Supreme court, I’m not sure the current members will side with the alleged drug dealers, terrorists and those nefarious children helping elderly parents.

  22. Well this is the perfect argument AGAINST gun control. May come a day when that’s the only remedy left to fend off this kind of thievery.

  23. Gary, what topic were you going to testify expertly on? Have you ridden in too many smelly Ubers with soft-sided luggage?

  24. @Jason B – I’ve had occasion to be engaged as an expert witness in several cases, that one never went to trial, but my role was to discuss passenger booking behaviors and whether DEA profiling models made sense in the context of modern air travel.

  25. @ dot: The thieves would steal the check as well. Cops now have swipe machines to drain pre-paid cards if they can’t steal any cash. It’s ludicrous, disgraceful, criminal.

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