LITIGATION BACKGROUNDER

Pittsburgh Airport Forfeiture

Pittsburgh Retiree Sues Federal Government to Get His Life Savings Back

Retired railroad engineer Terry Rolin’s life savings were seized by the government, but he hasn’t been charged with any crime. Terry saved up cash and kept it in his Pittsburgh home over many years. But when he moved out of his old house into a new, smaller apartment he didn’t feel safe keeping so much in cash savings. He asked his daughter, Rebecca Brown, to take the money home with her to Boston, deposit it into a new joint bank account, and use the money to replace his teeth and fix his truck, among other needs.

Concerned about flying with the more than $82,000 her father had entrusted to her, Rebecca checked online to make sure that she didn’t need to do anything to take the money with her on the plane. She found out that flying domestically with any amount of cash is completely legal. So, she packed the money in her carry-on and headed to the airport.

But she didn’t make it to Boston with her father’s life savings. Her bag was held by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) after she went through security screening because the money showed up on their X-ray. She was questioned by Pennsylvania State Troopers and then further by a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent. The DEA agent took the money without charging Rebecca with a crime or arresting her. After making them wait for months, the government told Terry and Rebecca that it wants to take that money for good using a legal process called civil forfeiture.

Terry and Rebecca didn’t do anything wrong. That’s why they are teaming up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to file a lawsuit to get the money back from DEA. Furthermore, their lawsuit is a class action against DEA and TSA for practices that violate the constitution and are outside TSA’s legal authority. Finally, the individual DEA agent is being sued for damages because of his violation of Rebecca’s and Terry’s rights.

Terry Rolin and His Life Savings

Terry Rolin, 79, was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Terry acquired the habit of squirreling money away around his home from his parents, who grew up during the Great Depression and didn’t like to keep their money in banks. For years, Terry took out some of his Railroad Retirement benefits in cash and hid the money in envelopes in the rafters of his unfinished basement, just like his mother used to do. Sometimes he even saw envelopes hidden in the same places by his mother.

In the fall of 2018, the upkeep of his family home was getting to be too difficult due to his poor health and age-related cognitive issues. Terry purchased a garden apartment. When he moved, the envelopes of money hidden by him and his parents were packed into various moving boxes.

As he unpacked in his new home, Terry soon realized that the cash was of an amount that he was uncomfortable leaving in the apartment.

Rebecca Visits and is Asked to Manage the Savings

Terry’s daughter, Rebecca Brown, flew into Pittsburgh the evening of Friday, August 23, 2019 for her brother’s wedding reception. Rebecca would typically take time to review her father’s finances whenever she returned home. That Saturday, Terry told her about the cash savings. They talked about a plan to use the money to replace his teeth, fix his truck, and for other future needs. Rebecca would take the money back to Boston and open a new bank account so she could help manage the savings.

Rebecca picked up the money on Sunday evening, but had no time to deposit it at a bank because she had an early flight back Monday morning. Before departing for the airport, Rebecca went online to see if she had to do anything to fly with that amount of cash. She learned that it was completely legal to travel domestically with any amount of money.

Rebecca is Stopped at Security Screening

Rebecca headed to the Pittsburgh International Airport with the money in a purse nestled on top of a beach bag full of clothes. When passing through the TSA screening area, her bag was pulled aside by TSA agents, who had seen the money on the X-Ray and asked why she was traveling with so much cash.

Rebecca told the TSA agents she was carrying the cash to deposit for her father. After further questioning, they demanded that she produce her ID and travel documents and told her they were going to hold onto her bag (and the cash) until law enforcement arrived. Rebecca waited 10-20 minutes for a Pennsylvania state trooper to show up to investigate. After explaining her story again, the trooper called his supervisor, making Rebecca wait an additional 10-15 minutes to repeat herself again. Eventually, after photocopying her ID and boarding passes, the TSA agents and troopers let Rebecca take her bag and money and go to her gate.

Terry’s Life Savings is Seized

Rebecca finally arrived at the terminal gate and began to work on her laptop. Shortly after, she was approached again by the state trooper along with a DEA agent who identified himself as “Steve.” They directed Rebecca to move to a quieter section of the gate to speak with her about the cash.

The DEA agent interrogated Rebecca about her cash and demanded to see it. Rebecca answered his questions and showed him the cash. After hearing her story, the agent said he wanted to call her father. Terry was awoken hours before he normally rises and was confused and groggy. In his barely awake state and with his cognitive problems, Terry was unable to corroborate one of the facts. After the call, the DEA agent seized the money, totaling $82,373. He did not charge Rebecca with any crime and let her board her flight shortly before the doors closed. Terry, concerned about what was happening, left seven voice messages for Rebecca as she was in the air. Only after landing was Rebecca able to return his calls and tell him that the government had taken all of the money.

Months later, Terry and Rebecca received notice that the government intends to take the money by civil forfeiture. Under this process, the government doesn’t have to charge Terry or Rebecca with any crime and hasn’t made any allegations that the money was obtained illegally. However, they are fighting back with a federal lawsuit to return their money and end the unconstitutional and illegal practices that led to it being taken in the first place.

The Legal Claims

IJ is filing a federal class-action lawsuit against TSA and DEA on behalf of Terry, Rebecca, and other air travelers who travel with cash (the members of the class). Their suit makes five specific claims, three class claims and two individual claims: (1) a class claim that TSA violates the Fourth Amendment by seizing travelers’ bags with “large” amounts of currency without probable cause; (2) a class claim that TSA violates its statutory authority by seizing bags that contain large amounts of currency; (3) a class claim that DEA violates the Fourth Amendment by seizing cash from air travelers without probable cause; (4) an individual claim that the government must return the $82,373 with interest; and (5) an individual claim against the DEA agent for violations of Terry’s and Rebecca’s constitutional rights.

Class Action Claims Against TSA

The lawsuit is also on behalf of all air travelers who have either had, or will have, luggage containing currency seized by TSA at screening checkpoints after the transportation screening process has concluded and where the only purported justification is the detection of a “large” amount of currency. Against TSA, there are two specific class claims.

The first class claim is that TSA exceeds their legal authority when they seize luggage based solely on the detection of cash. TSA only has statutory authority to protect air travel safety. TSA is not charged with general law enforcement or investigations. TSA is authorized to conduct screenings at airports to inspect individuals and property only for items that endanger air travel, namely “weapons, explosives, and incendiaries.”

Cash is not a weapon, explosive, or incendiary. IJ is requesting that the court declare that seizing luggage based solely on detection of cash within the luggage is unlawful because it exceeds TSA’s statutory authority and to enjoin TSA from doing this to any traveler.

The second class claim against TSA challenges the agency’s unconstitutional policy or practice of seizing luggage where the only justification is the detection of cash. It is perfectly legal to travel with cash and the federal courts have held that the presence of cash, by itself, is not evidence of a crime.  The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.

While TSA is permitted to conduct administrative searches of luggage for the purpose of protecting air travel safety, it cannot extend those searches into general law-enforcement investigations without reasonable suspicion or probable cause that a crime has occurred. Despite this, TSA seizes luggage solely because it contains a large amount of cash and holds it until law enforcement officers arrive. IJ is requesting that the court declare this policy and practice unconstitutional, and issue an injunction preventing TSA from doing this to any traveler.

Class Action Claim against DEA

The DEA class consists of all air travelers who have had, or will have, their cash seized by DEA in the secured area of airports because they are traveling with cash in excess of $5,000, regardless of whether there is probable cause to justify the seizure.

Under the Fourth Amendment, probable cause to suspect criminal activity is generally needed to seize a person’s property. But DEA has a policy or practice of seizing cash from travelers at airports if they have $5,000 or more, because it views those amounts of cash as “suspicious” despite numerous federal courts ruling otherwise. IJ is requesting that the court declare DEA’s behavior unconstitutional, and issue an injunction preventing DEA from continuing their unconstitutional policy or practice.

Individual Claim for Return of Property

IJ aims to recover Terry’s life savings—the $82,373 seized from Rebecca—because it was seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment. They are entitled to the immediate return of the cash, with interest, as it was seized without probable cause, in violation of the Constitution.

Individual Claim for Damages against the DEA Agent

IJ is also bringing an individual claim for damages on behalf of Terry and Rebecca against the DEA agent who took their money. This is known as a Bivens claim, which allows people to seek damages against a federal agent in their individual capacity. Because the DEA agent seized their cash without a warrant and without probable cause of criminal activity, he violated Terry and Rebecca’s Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Terry and Rebecca are entitled to compensatory damages for the time and suffering caused by the seizure, including Terry’s inability to get his teeth replaced or have his truck fixed because DEA has held his life savings since August 2019.

The Court and the Parties

This is a federal class action lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh.

IJ is representing August Terrence “Terry” Rolin and Rebecca Brown as the lead Plaintiffs and class representatives, as well as the putative class of plaintiffs. The Defendants in this case are the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), TSA Commissioner David P. Pekoske in his official capacity, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), DEA Acting Commissioner Uttam Dhillon in his official capacity, DEA Agent “Steve,” last name unknown, in his individual capacity, and the United States of America.

The Litigation Team

This case is being litigated by IJ attorneys Dan Alban and Jaba Tsitsuashvili as well as IJ constitutional law fellow Richard Hoover, who litigate civil forfeiture and other property rights cases nationwide.

About the Institute for Justice

The Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty and the nation’s leading advocate for property rights. This case is the latest in IJ’s nationwide initiative to end civil forfeiture. IJ has come to the defense of Americans nationwide to fight civil forfeiture, including the owners of a family-run motel in Massachusetts, property owners challenging Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture machine, a Burmese Christian band raising money for orphans and refugees, and a musician who had his life savings seized while traveling through Wyoming.

IJ is currently litigating another federal class action over an airport cash seizure in Houston, Texas; there, a registered nurse and U.S. citizen had her money seized by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) as she was boarding an international flight to visit her family in Nigeria. The cash was returned but the class action claims continue to be litigated.

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.