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Lawsuit Challenges DEA Cash Seizures

Jones and her husband were stopped and questioned as they passed through Transportation Security Administration (“TSA”) checkpoints. The TSA handed them over to a local sheriff’s deputy, and when he was unconvinced by their explanation of being recreational gamblers, he called in two Drug Enforcement Agency (“DEA”) agents. These agents continued the interrogation, and then, based on no evidence beyond a state suspicion the money was related to drug trafficking, they seized the cash.

Stacy Jones is now a named plaintiff in a class action lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice early in 2020. The suit argues that the DEA practice of seizing cash from travelers without any evidence of a crime is a violation of the Fourth Amendment and that the TSA participation in these seizures is beyond that agency’s statutory authority and is in itself unconstitutional.

Dan Alban, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, explained the problem. “Civil forfeiture allows the government to seize and permanently keep your property, even if you’ve never been charged with a crime ... DEA has a policy of seizing large amounts of cash at airports, regardless if it has any proof the money is connected to drug trafficking. And unfortunately, that sweeps up a whole bunch of innocent people.”

Statistics in the lawsuit assert that the DEA seized more than $2 billion in cash from 2009-2013. During that period, there were over 4,000 cash seizures at airports and other transportation hubs, netting the DEA a total of $163 million.

That money included the life savings of Terrence Rolin, who also is a named plaintiff. The 79-year-old retired railroad worker gave the money to this daughter to deposit in a joint bank account, but the DEA seized all $82,373 when she tried to fly home from Pittsburgh with it.

When the case got national media attention, the DEA returned the money, but both Rolin and his daughter are still participating in the lawsuit.

Even this media exposure did not compel policy changes at the DEA. Institute for Justice attorney Jaba Tsitsuashvili says that while it is logical and fair to assume that the government should not be able to take a person’s money 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.” 


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