A year ago a nationwide class action lawsuit was filed against the TSA and Drug Enforcement Agency over seizing the cash of travelers at airports.
The case started when a woman helped her elderly father downsize from a house into an apartment. He didn’t trust banks and kept his life savings of $82,000 squirreled away. She convinced him that she would set up a joint bank account with him, and took the money home with her to Boston, since banks were closed for the day and she was flying out early the next morning.
The cash was spotted at security. She was questioned. The DEA showed up and insisted on calling her father to verify the story. They woke him, he’s elderly and confused. That’s why she was setting up the joint account in the first place. The DEA had their ‘in’ – the stories didn’t perfectly match – and they seized his life’s savings. Without the cash he wasn’t able to get dental treatment for painful tooth decay or get his truck fixed.
Neither the woman nor her father were ever charged with a crime, but the government kept the money. They’re not alone. Last summer additional plaintiffs joined the suit as well.
Over $200 million a year is seized at the 15 largest airports, at the discretion of law enforcement, and being over $10,000 cash is enough for them to do so.
- Five 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.
On Tuesday U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Horan rejected the government’s motions to dismiss the case, allowing all three claims to move forward.
- “the TSA exceeds its statutory authority by detaining travelers and their cash after the security screening has ended”
- “the TSA violates the Fourth Amendment by detaining travelers and their cash without reasonable suspicion of criminality”
- “the DEA violates the Fourth Amendment by detaining travelers without reasonable suspicion and seizing their cash without probable cause.”
Whether these plaintiffs win or not, this means at a minimum we should learn how and why the government targets people, takes their money, even though no crimes have been committed. So the trial itself will be a win – unless of course the government capitulates completely to avoid this process.
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: