Nurse Boarding Houston Flight Had $41,000 Confiscated – Money Meant For a Medical Clinic

The government confiscated $41,000 on the jetway from a 59 year old nurse departing Houston back in October. She was never charged with a crime.

The woman, a US citizen living in the Houston suburb of Katy, had taken her savings with her to start a medical clinic in Nigeria. She was bringing medical equipemnt and supplies on the flight along with the cash. Customs and Border Protection stopped her during boarding.

“The officer started asking me questions: How much money do you have? How long have you been in the United States?” she remembered. “I felt like a criminal that had just run the red light.”

Nwaorie said she was detained for hours. She missed her flight to Nigeria and the customs officers seized all her money.

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.

It’s not illegal to carry more than $10,000 cash out of the country. However you have to file FinCEN Form 105 with the Customs and Border Protection office at the airport on your way out of the country. And by the way the $10,000 threshold applies to parties traveling together, so two people carrying over $5000 cash each would still have to file.

If the government wants to keep the money they file a civil suit against the money rather than the person (since money doesn’t have rights).

If someone does decide to fight..CBP has to ask federal prosecutors to initiate civil forfeiture proceedings against the property — which results in comical court case names like “United States vs. Ten Thousand Seven Hundred Dollars” or “United States vs. 2005 Cadillac Escalade.”

The government not only hasn’t charged this woman with a crime, they haven’t sought a court order to seize her property. But they won’t return the cash unless she signs away her rights promising not to sue and let the government keep some of the money to cover their “costs incurred.”

Customs and Border Protection “conducted at least 125,583 seizures across the country in 2016” including 278 at Houston’s international airport. Dan Alban at the Institute for Justice, whom I’ve known since the late 90s, has filed a class action suit demanding the government return this woman’s money and seeking to void agreements people were forced to sign absolving the government of wrongdoing as a condition of returning their money.

“We’re representing hundreds or thousands of people all over the country who have had this sort of thing happen to them,” said Dan Alban, one of the attorneys litigating the case. “They were entitled to get their property back … and instead, CBP sent them this letter demanding that they waive all rights to sue and hold [the government] harmless, and if they violate the agreement, pay all the attorney’s fees. And that’s just egregious.”

Two years ago 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. 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.

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. The us doesn’t have true exit immigration so the requirement to declare on the way out is particularly sneaky as people, especially people on connecting flights, aren’t informed.

  2. Technically woman did break the law by not declaring it, I have seen signs at the airport mentioning it. Therefore if CBP willing to return money its a fair result.

    Problem is with the government taking money from people who didn’t committed any crime. Its completely legal to travel domestically with large sum of money, but they are free to take it anyway.

    BTW, my friend for CBP said some of flights leaving the country are being screened by CBP only for undeclared money(nothing else).

  3. I had horrible experience at ORD jetway boarding area 2 years ago. I was asked and I had only $300 in cash . The cbp female agent was very rude, ransacked my child’s diaper bag even shakes his car seat. My wife’s wallet. She still found nothing except for $300 cash. We were treated like criminals while many were walking to board. I saw a male officer doing his job of asking and quickly checking bag and not being rude to others. The female officer then asked us all kinda personal questions and even made us signed our name and signatures on just a blank paper. I complained online but they were more like okay fine we will improve .

  4. I can’t agree that the $10,000 limit (without a declaration) is not generally known by the public. Most anyone, that moves funds around internationally, is aware of the procedures, and laws to be observed. Travelling with $41,000 in cash, to Nigeria (or many other destinations), is a good way to get you dead as well. There are always people who will do stupid things, or are so arrogant that they don’t believe the laws shouldn’t apply to them. Those are the folks that can’t be saved from themselves, unfortunately.

  5. Should have just Western Union’d the money to some place in Nigeria. Works great. I do it every month to my lawyer in Nigeria to recover the stolen inheritance I just found out about….

  6. (knock on wood) but I’ve never seen CBP in departures area when I board flights from JFK to Europe or Asia. Is it common f or CBP to be by the gate while passengers are boarding? Now I’m curious.

  7. Fully 80% of the time I’ve flown to Asia, Customs has had a crew of several folks manning the jetway “gauntlet” at DFW. They’re nice enough folks, but most won’t tell you why they’re there, unless you ask (I do). They also have very nice doggies that keep an eye on you as you walk past their posse. It’s not really a big deal, as I travel with about enough cash to cover the subway, and train from the airport. I never realized how much of a problem carrying large amounts of cash must be, but it certainly is pervasive (from my experience).

  8. Disgusting how the government treats obviously innocent people as criminals because they want to keep the money. This is a “gotcha” regulation designed to catch serious criminals engaged in money laundering, narco-trafficking etc. but the USG is all too happy to confiscate your money due to ignorance. No better than Nazi Germany except that they target stupid unsophisticated people not Jews.

  9. Hang on, folks — it’s not just a Customs Regulation. See IRS Pub 1544 — if a transaction is deemed to be in “trade or business” of any participant and involves cash of $10,000 or more, it must be reported on IRS Form 8300. So, if someone buys or sells something (for example, real property or a vehicle) for cash, they must file Form 8300 within 15 days of the transaction. So must the seller, and possibly a real estate agent or attorney.

    Also, if the seller deposits or the buyer withdraws $10,000 or more from a financial institution, the bank must fine a CTR – Currency Transaction Report with FinCEN – Financial Crimes Enforcement Network of the Treasury Department. See, 31 C.F.R. Sec 1010.311. And import or export of $10,000 or more triggers a filing requirement both in the U.S., AND in the E.U. and many other countries.

    Note that it is a felony to break up the transaction into parts to avoid filing the CTR or the Form 8300. 31 U.S.C. Sec. 5324. If the buyers are undocumented, this would be grounds for deportation. It is also a felony to fail to file the Form 8300 – when I still actively practiced law, some auto dealers who sold cars for cash and failed to file the form were prosecuted, and lost their licenses to sell vehicles due to the felony conviction.

    It is considered money laundering. It is specifically designed to deter drug trafficking.

  10. I’m glad they confiscated it. It was going to Nigeria to Prince Ubadooba’s phone clinic who emails Americans, claiming to have an account with $2.6 million dollars, but can’t get it out.

  11. As Anon writes above, the USA does not have exit controls, so anyone exporting large sums of cash must hunt down the US Customs office in the last US airport of his itin. to file the declaration form! In the 1980s–90s I was a freelance arbitrageur of Canadian currency. When I traveled thru the Detroit–Windsor Tunnel, I had to park at Duty-Free Shop & run across lanes of traffic to get there. Or I had to book >2-hours connect time on my flight!

    Those US CBP officers should have used more common sense. She had proof that she was a RN or LPN and she had medical supplies. Plus, the only illegal-money stories I have heard about Nigeria are the bank scams joked about by BB above! If she had been traveling to South America, there could be a suspicion that her medical mission could be a front for her to deliver cash to dope dealers. Or terrorists if she were traveling to the Middle East.

  12. I agree with Mark Stappenbeck on the risk of robbery in Nigeria! However, I don’t know what (if any) exchange controls Nigeria has. If she had wired the money from a bank in the USA & co-operated with the filling out of the CTR, banks in some destination countries would pay out only in their own currency at the “official” (govt.-set) exchange rate, so maybe physical US cash goes farther over there!
    Finally, the way I read this story, it sounds like she told US Customs the truth about her $41K. So they should have said, ‘Ma’am you need to file a FinCEN Form 105 form to declare your export of cash,’ handed her a blank one, & sent her on her way! It sounds like CBP’s attitude was, ‘Too late! By not hunting down our office before this, you intended to Fail to Declare!’

  13. @Joey – It’s not common on flights to Europe, Japan, Hong Hong, and Taipei. It’s more common on flights to developing countries and drug source countries.

  14. Ah. It’s just so nice living in a free country. It really is. And so good knowing my fellow citizens will back each other up against the thugs–I mean, civil servants–paid with their tax dollars–extorted from them year in and year out–to search and confiscate without probable cause or a warrant. Oh, wait a minute. That’s not right. My fellow citizens will back the thugs because ignorance of the law–whatever–is “no excuse”. Ah. Really special. Just really special. And so great knowing I can count on the support of my fellow “Americans” should I find myself on the wrong end of the “law”.

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