A retiree and his daughter filed a lawsuit against two government agencies in Pittsburg in January 2020 after his cash was allegedly confiscated at the airport using civil asset forfeiture.
The plaintiffs sued the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). According to the suit, the retiree kept his money at home because he mistrusted the banking system. Due to a recent change of residence, however, he had no choice but to deposit his savings in a bank.
His visiting daughter offered to help him with his accounts. She reportedly had $82,373 in her carry-on bag when she was flying back to Boston from Pittsburgh. During airport screening, a TSA agent discovered the cash and questioned her. She was eventually allowed to continue through the airport, but was stopped again by a DEA agent who seized the money before she boarded the plane.
In Pennsylvania, authorities only need to provide a preponderance of evidence before performing a seizure using civil forfeiture. There is an incentive for law enforcement to take property because all revenue from forfeitures goes to their agency budgets. Scarce reporting on forfeiture data also plagues the state. Ultimately, the owners have to go to court at their own expense to get their property back.
Even though the money was eventually returned in the Pittsburgh case, the plaintiffs still had to file a federal class-action lawsuit against the two agencies. With help from the nonprofit libertarian group Institute for Justice, the plaintiffs filed five counts against the agencies. One count was dismissed because the money was returned; another count suing for damages inflicted by the DEA was also dismissed. Three counts out of five remain against the TSA and the DEA.
One count claims TSA agents abused their authority when they held back the plaintiff and confiscated the money even after she passed the screening process. Another count purports a violation of her Fourth Amendment rights when she was detained without being charged for any wrongdoing. The last count alleges an infringement of the same Fourth Amendment rights by the DEA, who had no justifiable reason for holding back the plaintiff and seizing her property. The judge handling the case shot down a motion by the government agencies involved to dismiss the suit.
The lawsuit triggered a snowball effect; more people are now coming forward to file complaints against government agencies that allegedly seized their assets at the airport. The class-action suit initially filed by the retiree and his daughter was joined by another plaintiff from Tampa. According to her claim, the DEA took $43,000 in cash from her at Wilmington airport when she was flying home to Tampa. The Institute for Justice has also filed corresponding complaints in Cleveland, Ohio, and Houston, Texas on behalf of other wronged individuals.
An Institute for Justice senior attorney stated that cases of civil forfeiture in airports are more common than most people think. Based on their statement, authorities crack down on innocent people who are not doing anything illegal. Carrying large sums of money while traveling in the U.S. is not a crime.
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