Over $2 billion has been seized from travelers at U.S. airports by the federal government between 2000 and 2016. 70% of 30,500 people whose money was seized were never charged with any crime. 25% of money was seized at Washington Dulles airport in the most recent year for which data is available.
The other airports at the top of the list of volume of cash seizures were international hubs Chicago’s O’Hare; New York JFK; Dallas/Fort Worth; and Atlanta.
According to Customs and Border Protection, the most common reason for seizures is a paperwork violation – failure to declare cash. Did you know you have to declare when you take $10,000 out of the country even though there’s no customs check when you’re leaving? Over $500 million was seized over missing paperwork and 90% of those don’t lead to an arrest (and a second offense, like money laundering or drugs, is only allegged “0.3% of the time.”
It took a four year legal battle to obtain access to the Seized Assets and Case Tracking System (SEACATS), the Treasury Department’s forfeiture database. This is information the government doesn’t want you to know.
Travelers whose currency is seized at an airport face a long and unfair process when trying to get their money back. Nearly all—93%—of civil forfeiture cases involving currency seized at airports are processed without any judicial oversight. On average, it takes 193 days for currency to be forfeited after it is seized, leaving property owners in legal limbo for more than six months. In one case, 15 years elapsed between seizure and forfeiture.
I’ve written about a man whose life savings was taken at the Cincinnati airport because authorities said his bag smelled like pot (I was engaged as an expert witness in the case, his funds were returned). What if your Uber or cab driver was transporting something illegal in the trunk before he handled your luggage?
And about the grandmother from Katy, Texas who brought $41,000 with her to Nigeria to open a free clinic for women and children. She didn’t know she had to declare cash when leaving the country, most people believe it’s only required upon entry. (Full disclosure: I’ve known the attorney who represented Ms. Nwaorie pro bono in this case for 20 years.)
Just in May police took $138,980 from a passenger at Boston’s Logan airport and bragged about it on Facebook. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency (United States of America v. $30,750 in U.S. Currency) anyone flying between cities like Chicago and Los Angeles can be stopped, searched, and their cash confiscated because “Chicago is a known consumer city for narcotics and Los Angeles is a known source city where narcotics can be purchased.”
Chicago and Los Angeles are “part of a federally-designated ‘High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.’” 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 suffice to justify taking any money you may be carrying.
More on the horrible practice of civil asset forfeiture: