Andrew Wimer
Andrew Wimer · July 30, 2020

Arlington, Va.­­­­––As though air travel in the age of COVID-19 were not stressful enough, Americans have another potential risk factor to worry about: cash seizures at airports. Under civil forfeiture laws, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and other Homeland Security agencies routinely seize cash and other currency from travelers at airports nationwide. Most often, their only crime is a failure to file required paperwork. So finds a new Institute for Justice study titled “Jetway Robbery? Homeland Security and Cash Seizures at Airports.”

This study is the first to examine airport currency seizures by CBP, ICE and other DHS agencies. It is also the first to use data from the Treasury Department’s forfeiture database, the Seized Assets and Case Tracking System or SEACATS, which IJ obtained only after a multiyear legal battle with CBP. Covering 2000 through 2016, the study quantifies just how often DHS agencies have seized currency at airports—and just how much currency has flowed into the federal government’s coffers as a result.

“Jetway Robbery?” finds airport currency seizures by CBP and other DHS agencies are a large and growing phenomenon. Over 17 years, DHS agencies seized more than $2 billion across more than 30,000 seizures. The amount seized year to year also trended upward over that period.

“The most common reason for airport currency seizures is a failure to report traveling internationally with $10,000 or more in cash or other currency, as required by federal law,” said Jennifer McDonald, senior research analyst at IJ and author of the report. “Such paperwork violations account for half of all currency seizures and over a quarter of the total value seized—more than half a billion dollars—most without a demonstrated connection to serious criminal activity.”

Indeed, only one in 10 cases involving a reporting violation leads to an arrest, and a second offense—such as drug trafficking or money laundering—is alleged only 0.3% of the time. And regardless of the offense alleged, less than a third of cases overall involve an arrest. This suggests that even when something more serious than a mere paperwork violation is alleged, offenses are rarely egregious enough—or the government’s evidence is rarely strong enough—to warrant arrest, let alone prosecution.

These findings are in line with what IJ has seen on the ground with clients like Anthonia Nwaorie. Anthonia, a U.S. citizen, grandmother and nurse from Katy, Texas, was carrying over $41,000 en route to her native Nigeria, where she planned to use the funds to build a free medical clinic for women and children. “Anthonia had no idea she needed to report leaving the country with more than $10,000 until CBP agents seized her cash and sent her packing,” said Dan Alban, an IJ senior attorney and lead attorney on Anthonia ’s case and another IJ case challenging an airport seizure by DEA and the Transportation Security Administration. “The requirement to report upon entry is well known because travelers are required to complete a customs declaration, but there is no corresponding form to complete when departing and the requirement is not well publicized.” Anthonia was never arrested or charged with any crime.

Further underscoring the lack of an apparent link to serious criminal activity, “Jetway Robbery?” finds 91% of seized currency that is ultimately forfeited is processed under civil, rather than criminal, procedures, meaning no one had to be convicted for the government to keep the cash.

Travelers whose currency is seized at an airport face a long and unfair process when trying to get their money back. Nearly all—93%—of civil forfeiture cases involving currency seized at airports are processed without any judicial oversight. On average, it takes 193 days for currency to be forfeited after it is seized, leaving property owners in legal limbo for more than six months. In one case, 15 years elapsed between seizure and forfeiture.

This, too, conforms with IJ clients’ experiences. Anthonia waited seven months to get her money back. Although the U.S. attorney’s office declined to pursue forfeiture of her cash, CBP refused to return it unless she signed an agreement promising never to sue the agency over its unlawful seizure of her property. CBP relented only after IJ filed a federal civil rights class action lawsuit on behalf of Anthonia and all others similarly situated. The class action continues.

“Federal law enforcement agencies are tasked with finding and punishing criminals, but these findings suggest Department of Homeland Security airport currency seizure and forfeiture practices put innocent Americans at risk,” said McDonald. “To ensure another innocent American never loses property unjustly, and that federal law enforcement is doing its job, Congress must reform civil forfeiture.”

The Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty and the nation’s leading advocate for property rights. Anthonia’s case and others are part of IJ’s nationwide initiative to end civil forfeiture. Sparked by the seizure of the life savings of a Pittsburgh retiree from his daughter who was flying home to Boston, IJ launched a class action lawsuit against the Transportation Security Administration and Drug Enforcement Administration over their seizure practices. IJ also successfully secured the return of cash seized by CBP at the Cleveland, Ohio, airport; there a retiree had $58,100 he had saved to purchase a home in his native Albania taken for seven months. IJ is also litigating another federal forfeiture class action against CBP in Texas; in that case, CBP seized and held a U.S. citizen’s Ford F-250 pickup truck for over two years.