Andrew Wimer
Andrew Wimer · August 31, 2020

Tampa, Fla.—Stacy Jones had flown with large amounts of cash occasionally and did not expect it would be a problem when she did so earlier this year. She had been looking forward to a trip to North Carolina to visit a newly reopened casino and set aside money for gaming. She added to that amount of cash when friends she was staying with offered to purchase a car she owned with her husband. But when a close family member passed away, Stacy decided to fly home to Tampa rather than visit the casino. Without concern, she packed the cash in her carry-on bag. Unfortunately, she did not make it home with her money; even though she has done nothing wrong, the federal government is fighting to permanently take what is rightfully hers through civil forfeiture.

When Stacy went through security screening at Wilmington International Airport, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners noticed the cash and held onto her carry-on bag. Sheriff’s deputies and then Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents interrogated her about the source of the money. She explained the legal sources of her money, but the DEA agents seized it—without any allegations of criminality. Now, Stacy is teaming up with the Institute for Justice, fighting to end these unconstitutional and unlawful practices by the DEA and the TSA.

“Flying with any amount of cash is completely legal, but time and time again government agents treat innocent Americans like criminals,” said IJ Senior Attorney Dan Alban. “DEA should return Stacy’s money immediately. TSA and DEA should also stop seizing money from air travelers simply because they have large amounts of cash.”

In addition to fighting the DEA’s attempt to take her money, Stacy is joining an existing federal class action lawsuit filed earlier this year. The original plaintiffs in that suit are a Pittsburgh retiree, Terry Rolin, and his daughter who lives in Boston, Rebecca Brown. DEA seized Terry’s life savings from Rebecca as she was flying home through the Pittsburgh International Airport. Two months after filing the lawsuit and seven months after the cash was seized, the DEA returned the money without explanation, apology or interest.

Stacy joins Rebecca’s and Terry’s ongoing lawsuit as an additional named plaintiff. The suit aims to stop TSA’s and DEA’s unconstitutional and unlawful airport cash seizure practices. First, the suit claims that TSA exceeds its statutory authority by seizing cash, which poses no threat to transportation security. Second, the suit claims that TSA violates the Fourth Amendment rights of flyers when it seizes them and their belongings without reasonable suspicion, simply because they are believed to have a “large” amount of cash. Third, the suit claims that the DEA violates the Fourth Amendment rights of flyers by seizing them based solely on the belief or knowledge that they have a large amount of cash, and by seizing their money for civil forfeiture without probable cause, based solely on its amount.

“I worked hard for this money and was intending to use it for a down payment on a house,” said Stacy. “It’s wrong that the government treats people like criminals even though they are doing something perfectly legal. It needs to stop.”

Stacy finds herself trapped in the upside-down world of civil forfeiture, where the government brings charges against property instead of people. The government does not have to convict or even charge people with a crime in order to take and keep 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.

“Terry’s and Rebecca’s case made headlines across the country and even overseas, but that still didn’t stop the TSA and DEA from doing the same thing to Stacy,” said IJ Attorney Jaba Tsitsuashvili. “The government shouldn’t be able to take someone’s savings unless they are convicted of a crime. But because federal law enforcement gets to spend the money it keeps through civil forfeiture, agencies like the DEA are incentivized to take cash without justification. This needs to stop. It’s wrong, and it’s unconstitutional.”