Lawsuit: DEA, TSA seize cash from air travelers not suspected of crimes

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (FOX 46 CHARLOTTE)– Watch out if you plan on bringing a lot of cash with you next time you hop on a plane. The TSA and DEA are confiscating it, without any reason to believe a crime has been committed, according to a new federal class-action lawsuit.

The feds are violating the Constitution by seizing money from domestic air travelers “without any indication of criminal activity,” according to the 112-page lawsuit, filed by the non-profit civil liberties law firm the Institute for Justice. Passengers are being flagged “simply because they are traveling with a ‘large’ amount of cash,” the complaint, which documents several cases nationwide, claims.

“It’s not illegal to have cash on you,” said FOX 46 investigative reporter Matt Grant. “So, how can these agencies just take your money?”

“You’re absolutely right, it’s absolutely legal to travel with any amount of money domestically,” said Dan Alban, a senior attorney with Institute for Justice. “But, unfortunately, both TSA and DEA have policies that treat what they consider to be large amounts of money as presumptively suspicious and indicative of criminal activity.”

He is suing on behalf of thousands of air travelers, seeing the return of seized money and an end to a nationwide policy the law firm says is “absolutely absurd” and “unconstitutional.”

“If you travel through an airport with more than $5000 or $10,000, and it’s detected when you go through TSA security screening, they will stop you,” said Alban. “They will detain you. They will interrogate you. And, more likely than not, they will seize your cash and try to permanently forfeit it using civil forfeiture.”

“In almost none of these cases does anyone get charged criminally,” Alban added.

It happened to Stacy Jones. Last year, she and her husband traveled to Wilmington. The couple sold their 2016 Maserati for $28,000 cash. They had another $10,000 they planned to use for gambling, and $4000 in loose spending cash, according Jones, who is part of the lawsuit.

“As my bag went through the TSA woman said, ‘I need to look in your bag’ and I was like, ‘Oh did I leave my water in there?,’” said Jones. “I didn’t even think my money was a problem.”

She says two plain clothed DEA agents “interrogated” her for an hour. She says she gave agents the phone number of the person who bought the Maserati to verify but was told their story “didn’t add up.”

In total, agents seized more than $40,000 from the couple. They eventually got their money back almost nine months later, after filing a lawsuit, she said.

“We didn’t do anything wrong,” said Jones. “There was no evidence of wrongdoing. We were searched. The dog sniffed all of our property….I was even followed into the restroom by a female officer.”

The lawsuit says a similar incident at Charlotte Douglas in 2015. The owner of a California transportation company had $55,000 in cash which he planned to use to buy a tour bus, the lawsuit states. The money was confiscated.

The TSA did not respond to a request seeking comment.

“The Drug Enforcement Administration does not have a comment at this time because the case is still being litigated,” a DEA spokesperson said in an email.

FOX 46 asked if the agency could comment generally about the practice of seizing money and if cash can be taken without probable cause of a crime. The DEA again insisted it could not comment due to ongoing litigation.

Money seized goes into a federal forfeiture fund which can be used for any law enforcement purpose. Alban says that creates a “perverse incentive” to collect the cash.

“We’re trying to shut this down,” he said. “Because the government should not be treating travelers like ATMs.”

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