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Government to Air Travelers: Sit Back, Give Us Your Cash and Enjoy Your Flight

Readers of Liberty & Law are familiar with IJ’s civil forfeiture work representing property owners and small business owners. But if you are a frequent flyer, you might be surprised to learn that law enforcement can use civil forfeiture to seize your cash in airports.

Charles Clarke is one of thousands of Americans whose cash has been taken by the government at an airport through civil forfeiture. Charles is a 24-year-old college student who spent more than five years saving $11,000—only to have it seized by law enforcement officials before he boarded a flight at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport. The government has kept Charles’ life savings without charging him with, much less convicting him of, a drug crime.

The government claims it took Charles’ money because his luggage smelled like marijuana. At that time, Charles occasionally smoked marijuana. But his cash was not drug money, and the police found no drugs on him or any other evidence of criminal activity. Nevertheless, they seized all of his cash and have held it for more than a year. Being an occasional recreational smoker does not, without any other proof, make someone a drug dealer, and it does not mean that you should lose your life savings when no drugs or other evidence of a crime are found on you or your belongings. Courts have recognized that carrying large amounts of cash is not by itself evidence of criminal activity, but too many law enforcement agencies still find ways of seizing and forfeiting cash.

Charles saved up his money from working various jobs, financial aid, educational benefits based on his mother’s status as a disabled veteran and gifts from family. Charles was visiting relatives in Cincinnati while he and his mother were moving to a new apartment back in Florida. He did not want to lose the $11,000 in the move, so he took it with him. But the burden should not be on Charles to prove that his money is legitimate.
Ordinary Americans like Charles have become victims of a wave of forfeitures in our nation’s airports. In the late 1990s, the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport police took part in a couple dozen seizures per year—but by 2013, that figure had skyrocketed to almost 100 seizures, totaling more than $2 million.

Under a federal program called equitable sharing, state and local police receive up to 80 percent of forfeiture proceeds in exchange for referring seized property to federal authorities. Using this program, 13 different law enforcement agencies from Kentucky and Ohio are seeking a cut of Charles’ money, even though 11 of those agencies were not involved in the seizure. Although earlier this year the Justice Department curtailed one of the most egregious aspects of equitable sharing after widespread criticism, Charles’ case and the behavior of these law enforcement agencies demonstrate why those modest reforms are insufficient to stem the problem. That is why IJ will continue to litigate to strike down these profit-driven seizures as unconstitutional violations of due process.

IJ is taking Charles’ case to get his money back and to protect thousands of others like him from having their money seized at airports.
With this case, IJ has brought national attention and public scrutiny to airport seizures. The popular website Vox.com published an in-depth story on Charles, which became one of its most-read stories and exploded on social media. Charles’ story has resonated with thousands of people.
Carrying large amounts of cash is not a crime, and law enforcement should not treat people who carry cash like criminals. A victory for Charles will vindicate not just his right to be free from the unjust taking of his cash; it will also vindicate the right of every American to be free from unjust confiscation of currency and other property.

Renée Flaherty is an IJ attorney.

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