The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) will reportedly return more than $43,000 it seized from a Tampa woman at an airport after she joined a class-action lawsuit challenging the agency’s practice of using civil asset forfeiture to seize cash from travelers.
The DEA reportedly seized $43,167 from Stacy Jones last May as she was trying to fly home to Florida from North Carolina. According to sources, she and her husband were stopped and questioned by airport security about the cash, which was in a carry-on bag. Airport security called the police, who eventually alerted the DEA.
During her interview with DEA agents, she reportedly explained that the cash was from the private sale of a used car as well as money she and her husband were planning to spend at a casino opening in North Carolina. The DEA agents decided the money was being used for drug trafficking, even though there was no evidence of illegal activity, and confiscated it using civil asset forfeiture.
Civil asset forfeiture laws allow law enforcement and prosecutors to seize property suspected of being connected to criminal activity, often even if the property owner is never charged or convicted of a crime. Law enforcement groups say the practice is a necessary tool for disrupting organized crime, like drug trafficking, by targeting its illegal proceeds. However, civil liberties groups say the process has too few procedural protections for property owners and creates perverse incentives for police to seize cash based on mere suspicion.
The accused is a named plaintiff in a class-action civil rights lawsuit filed in January by the Institute for Justice (IJ). Although it is legal to fly domestically with large amounts of undeclared cash, the IJ lawsuit claims the DEA and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have a policy of seizing cash from travelers at U.S. airports without probable cause if the amount is greater than $5,000. The DEA has not publicly announced a formal threshold. The IJ lawsuit argues that it’s very easy for innocent travelers to get caught in the process, to the extent that their Fourth Amendment and possibly Fifth Amendment rights are violated.
Incidents of unwarranted cash seizures at airports are quite common. According to a recently published analysis by IJ, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and other federal agencies have used asset forfeiture to seize more than $2 billion from travelers between 2000 and 2016. The analysis found that a majority of the cash seizures were from travelers who allegedly did not declare they were traveling with more than $10,000.
More than a year after it seized the Tampa woman’s money, the DEA announced in a letter it sent to her legal representatives earlier this month that it would be returning all of her money.
“Getting my money back is a big relief, but the DEA never should have taken it in the first place,” she said in a press release. “In going through this nightmare, I found that I’m not the only innocent American who has been treated this way. I hope that my continuing lawsuit will end the government’s practice of treating people flying with cash like criminals.”
She is lucky the DEA is returning her cash back so quickly. Getting back cash or property seized in this way usually requires the property owner to prove in court that it was not involved in a crime. The process is often complex and costly, which is why anyone who has had their lawful property seized should immediately consult a civil asset forfeiture defense attorney.
South Florida Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
Has your lawful property been seized using asset forfeiture? Contact Brian Silber, P.A. to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of South Florida’s most experienced civil asset forfeiture defense attorneys.