In December, Dallas police officers at the city's Love Field Airport seized a passenger's luggage based on an alert from a drug dog. There were no drugs in the bag, but they did find more than $106,000 cash wrapped in bubble wrap. The police seized the cash through asset forfeiture, but would not elaborate further on why the cash was seized or what the traveler was suspected of.
Now, further information has been released, which raises additional questions about the police department's story.
As Reason detailed at the time, there is no law regarding how much money a person can carry on a domestic flight. But under civil asset forfeiture, a law enforcement agency need only allege that the cash could have been used for criminal activity. In Texas, the standard of proof for seizing someone's cash or other property is simply a preponderance of the evidence, whereas to get the cash or property back, the owner would have to go to court to prove that they were not involved in criminal activity. Unless the property is returned, the police can keep a substantial portion of the proceeds.
This week, Dallas' local CBS affiliate obtained the police report related to the incident, in which the officers explained why they chose to ultimately seize the cash. After the drug-sniffing dog alerted them to a suitcase, police determined that since the bag was "destined for a known source city [Chicago] for the exportation of narcotics," then that was sufficient to search it. The detective conducting the search indicated "smelling the odor of marijuana," though the cash and some packing material were the suitcase's only contents.
Detectives located the traveler, a 25-year-old woman, and questioned her about the bag. They reported that she misidentified the suitcase as gray, rather than black, and that her description of the locking mechanism was inaccurate. They further asked if she was transporting cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine, to which she answered that she was not. When they asked if she was transporting marijuana, according to the affiliate's news story, "police noted she hesitated and her eyes darted to the left" before saying no. When they asked if she was carrying a lot of cash, she again hesitated and glanced to the left before saying that no, she had about $20,000, which she said was from the sale of a house, and some clothes.
On this basis, the police suspected that the cash could be "the result of the sales of illegal narcotics" and seized it.
What stands out in that description is the distinct absence of a crime. As stated, carrying large amounts of cash on a domestic flight is not illegal. While the bag may very well have smelled of marijuana, possession is perfectly legal in Illinois, where the traveler lives and was returning to. And the Dallas Police Department indicated, in the initial statement it provided to Reason in December, that the traveler was in Dallas on a layover, so even if she were engaging in drug trafficking, it would almost certainly have to have taken place wherever she had flown from.
Not to mention that once the detectives sat down with their suspect, the extent of her "suspicious behavior" was that she acted nervous, under-reported the amount of cash, and described the bag's physical appearance inaccurately. Admittedly, this could be the behavior of a devious narcotics trafficker caught in the act—or it could just as easily be the mannerisms of a nervous young woman being interrogated by police in the airport of an unfamiliar city.
Singling out darting eye movements as criminally suspicious evokes the explanations New York City police officers would use to justify that department's many "stop and frisk" encounters every year: Despite a minuscule number of searches ever turning up anything legally actionable, incident reports routinely accused the suspects of "furtive movements" or being in a "high crime area" to justify being accosted and searched.
Civil asset forfeiture, as currently practiced, is rife for abuse by police departments looking to pad their budgets. Luckily, this case has spurred some state and local authorities in Texas to look closer at possibly reforming the practice. When police are able to take someone's property simply by claiming that it could be used for criminal purposes, there is clearly plenty of room for improvement.