For many travelers, dealing with the hassles of airport security is the worst part of flying.
For those traveling with cash, that hassle turns into a nightmare when they are treated like criminals—and even find their money taken from them through civil forfeiture.
That’s what happened to Terry Rolin and his daughter, Rebecca Brown. Terry is a retired railroad engineer living near Pittsburgh. As the son of parents who lived through the Great Depression, he distrusted banks and hid his money in the basement of his family home. When Terry decided that his old house required too much upkeep and that the time had come to move into a smaller apartment, he became uncomfortable with keeping his life savings—more than $82,000—in cash.
So last summer, when Rebecca made a weekend trip from her home in Boston to visit her father, Terry told her about the money and his growing concern about keeping it in the new apartment. They agreed that she would open a new joint bank account and use the funds to take care of him, including getting him dental work and fixing his truck.
Because Rebecca’s Monday morning flight home was scheduled to depart before the banks opened for the day, she knew she had to take the money home with her in order to deposit it. But she was nervous about traveling with it, so she did her research and confirmed that it is legal to fly domestically with any amount of cash. She packed Terry’s life savings in her carry-on and headed to Pittsburgh International Airport.
At the airport, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents found the money when Rebecca’s bag went through security screening. They flagged it and made Rebecca wait while they contacted Pennsylvania state troopers. The troopers ultimately let her proceed to her gate, but one of them approached her again before departure, this time bringing along a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent.
That DEA agent questioned Rebecca once more and then insisted on speaking with her father. Terry, who doesn’t usually wake up until later in the morning, was startled and disoriented by the agent’s call. Declaring that he wasn’t satisfied with Terry’s answers, the DEA agent seized the cash. Rebecca wasn’t arrested and, despite everything, made her flight home. But the money was gone. After holding on to the cash for months, the DEA finally informed Terry and Rebecca that the agency was going to take Terry’s life savings through civil forfeiture.
Terry and Rebecca did nothing wrong, and Terry doesn’t deserve to lose what he worked for decades to earn. They teamed up with IJ to file a major class action lawsuit against the TSA and DEA—IJ’s third case in three years defending Americans who have done nothing more than try to fly with a “large” amount of cash. Both agencies violated Terry’s and Rebecca’s constitutional rights. The DEA took the money without probable cause and without charging anyone with a crime. The TSA seized Rebecca’s bag merely because it contained cash, something it is not legally or constitutionally allowed to do.
IJ will pull out all the stops to get the government to quickly return Terry’s life savings. Yet our suit won’t end when the money is returned. Terry and Rebecca will continue fighting on behalf of a class of people like them to end the practice of seizing cash from travelers based on mere suspicion and to continue to curtail forfeiture abuse.
Andrew Wimer is IJ’s assistant director of communications