After flying from Tampa to North Carolina for a casino reopening last May, Stacy Jones and her husband had dinner with friends, who were interested in buying a car the couple owned. They paid for it in cash. When the couple had to cut their trip short because of a death in the family, Jones put that money, along with cash she had for gambling, in a carry-on bag and headed for the airport in Wilmington, never considering the possibility that she was about to be robbed of $43,000 by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
A local sheriff's deputy, alerted to the presence of seizable cash by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners, grilled Jones and her husband about the money and deemed their explanation fishy, even after he called their friend, who confirmed the car purchase but was unable to say exactly how many miles were on the odometer. The deputy called in two DEA agents, who interrogated the couple some more and then announced that they were seizing the money based on their suspicion that it was related to drug trafficking.
Jones is the latest named plaintiff in a federal class action lawsuit that the Institute for Justice filed in January, arguing that the DEA's practice of seizing money from travelers without any evidence of criminal activity violates the Fourth Amendment. The lawsuit also argues that the TSA's participation in this racket is unconstitutional and exceeds the agency's statutory authority.
"I've traveled with cash in the past," Jones told WFLA, the NBC station in Tampa. "We are recreational gamblers, so it's just something that we've done and never thought twice about."
There is nothing illegal about traveling with large amounts of cash. But given the legalized larceny authorized by civil asset forfeiture laws, Jones was always taking a risk by thinking she could safely travel with her own money, unmolested by avaricious drug warriors.
"Civil forfeiture allows the government to seize and permanently keep your property, even if you've never been charged with a crime," Institute for Justice senior attorney Dan Alban explained to WFLA. "DEA has a policy of seizing large amounts of cash at airports, regardless if it has any proof the money is connected to drug trafficking. And unfortunately, that sweeps up a whole bunch of innocent people who have perfectly legitimate reasons for traveling with cash."
According to the Institute for Justice lawsuit, the DEA seized more than $2 billion in cash from 2009 through 2013. During that period, it was responsible for more than 4,000 cash seizures at airports and other transportation facilities, which netted a total of $163 million.
The named plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Terrence Rolin, a 79-year-old retired railroad engineer, who lost his life savings—$82,373—to a DEA seizure after his daughter, Rebecca Brown, whom he had charged with depositing the money in a joint bank account, took it with her while flying from Pittsburgh, where she was visiting him, to her home in Massachusetts. Two months later, after the case attracted national publicity, the DEA agreed to return the money.
Rolin and Brown are still participating in the lawsuit. In the amended complaint, they say their fear of DEA seizures has prevented them from handling money the way they would otherwise prefer.
"Terry's and Rebecca's case made headlines across the country and even overseas, but that still didn't stop the TSA and DEA from doing the same thing to Stacy," notes Institute for Justice attorney Jaba Tsitsuashvili. "The government shouldn't be able to take someone's savings unless they are convicted of a crime. But because federal law enforcement gets to spend the money it keeps through civil forfeiture, agencies like the DEA are incentivized to take cash without justification."
Jones thinks Americans traveling in the United States should not have to live in fear of money-grabbing law enforcement officials, as if they were visiting a Third World country where corruption is endemic and cops routinely act like robbers. "I worked hard for this money and was intending to use it for a down payment on a house," she says. "It's wrong that the government treats people like criminals even though they are doing something perfectly legal. It needs to stop."