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Pittsburgh Retiree Sues Federal Government to Get His Life Savings Back

DEA seized more than $82,000 from retiree’s daughter as she traveled through the Pittsburgh airport

PITTSBURGH—Terry Rolin’s life savings of $82,373 were seized by the federal government even though he has not been charged with any crime. In fact, his daughter was doing something completely legal—flying domestically with cash—when the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized the money in August 2019 at the Pittsburgh International Airport. Today, Terry and his daughter Rebecca Brown are teaming up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to file a federal lawsuit to get his life savings returned and to end unconstitutional and unlawful practices by the DEA and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

  • WATCH an IJ video about this case.
  • DOWNLOAD a video news release of Rebecca telling her story.
  • READ the lawsuit.

Terry, 79, is a retired railroad engineer born and raised in Pittsburgh. For many years, he followed his parents’ habit of hiding money in the basement of their home. When Terry moved out of his family home and into a smaller apartment, he became uncomfortable with keeping a large amount of cash. Last summer, when his daughter Rebecca was home for a family event, Terry asked her to take the money and open a new joint bank account that he could use to pay for dental work and to fix his truck, among other needs.

With an early flight on a Monday morning, Rebecca did not have time to visit a bank in Pittsburgh and chose to carry the money with her on the way to Boston. Worried about flying with a large amount of cash, Rebecca checked online and found out that flying with any amount of money domestically is completely legal. However, during security screening, TSA agents took her bag aside and made her wait to be questioned by Pennsylvania State Troopers.

While she was eventually allowed to leave for her gate with the money, before boarding she was approached again by a trooper and a DEA agent. After interrogating Rebecca and calling Terry, the agent seized the money without charging either Terry or Rebecca with a crime. Months later, Terry and Rebecca received notice that the DEA intends to permanently keep the money using civil forfeiture, a process that allows law enforcement to take the money without convicting anyone of a crime.

“Flying with any amount of cash is completely legal, but once again we see government agents treating American citizens like criminals,” said IJ Senior Attorney Dan Alban. “You don’t forfeit your constitutional rights when you try to board an airplane. It is time for TSA and federal law enforcement to stop seizing cash from travelers simply because the government considers certain amounts of cash ‘suspicious.’”

This is the third time IJ has sued the federal government to return cash taken from innocent air travelers. In Houston, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) seized more than $41,000 from a nurse traveling to Nigeria to open a medical clinic for women and children. In Cleveland, CBP seized more than $58,000 from a man using his savings to purchase a home for retirement. In both cases, the federal government eventually returned the money.

Terry’s and Rebecca’s lawsuit seeks the return of their money, but also aims to stop the unconstitutional and unlawful practices of TSA and DEA with class action claims and a claim against the DEA agent. First, the suit sets forth that TSA exceeds its legal authority by seizing cash, which poses no threat to air travel. Second, the suit claims that TSA violates the constitutional rights of flyers when it seizes bags without probable cause, simply because they contain a “large” amount of cash. Third, the suit claims that the DEA violates the constitutional rights of flyers by seizing their money without probable cause. Finally, the lawsuit includes a claim for damages against the DEA agent who seized Terry’s and Rebecca’s money without probable cause.

“My father and his parents worked hard for this money, and the government shouldn’t be able to reach into his pocket and take it,” said Rebecca Brown. “We did nothing wrong and haven’t been charged with any crime, yet the DEA is trying to take my father’s life savings. His savings should be returned right away, and the government should stop taking money from Americans who are doing something completely legal.”

Terry and Rebecca find themselves trapped in the upside-down world of civil forfeiture, where the government brings charges against property instead of people. The federal government does not have to convict or even charge people with a crime in order to take their property. Property owners are not entitled to legal representation, and the standard of proof needed for the government to keep the property is lower than in a criminal case.

“It’s become routine for law enforcement to seize money first and ask questions later,” said IJ Attorney Jaba Tsitsuashvili. “The government shouldn’t be able to take someone’s life savings without a related criminal conviction. Unfortunately, people like Terry across the country are forced to fight to prove their innocence just to keep money or property they worked hard to earn. This abuse needs to end.”

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