Retiree sues TSA, DEA for confiscating money without cause

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A father and daughter have filed a class-action lawsuit against the Transportation Security Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration, claiming that authorities seized the father’s life savings at Pittsburgh International Airport without any legal justification.

The lawsuit was filed by the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm, on behalf of Terry Rolin, 79, a retired railroad engineer from Pittsburgh. The firm has sued in two other similar cases in Houston and Cleveland. In both cases, the U.S. government eventually gave the money back.

Civil libertarians have long complained that asset forfeitures arising from criminal convictions and cases in which a person is merely suspected of a crime can be arbitrary and excessive.

For years, Rolin followed his parents’ eccentric Depression-era habit of hiding money in the basement of his home, according to the legal complaint. When he relocated to a smaller apartment, he became uncomfortable keeping a large stash of cash at home. So last year when his daughter, Rebecca Brown, visited for a family event, he asked her to take the money—$82,373 in total—and open a new joint bank account that he could use to pay for his ongoing personal needs.

Facing an early flight on a Monday morning, Brown couldn’t drop by a bank in Pittsburgh and opted to keep the cash with her on her flight back to Boston. She did research online and discovered there was nothing illegal about flying with a large sum of cash. But during a security screening, TSA agents set aside her bag containing the money and made her wait to be questioned by Pennsylvania state troopers. Initially, they let her leave for the gate with the money, but before she boarded, a trooper and DEA agent approached her again.

Apparently, these officials found the situation suspicious and held onto the money without charging her or her father with a crime. Months later, the DEA notified them that it intended to keep the money using civil asset forfeiture, a process that allows law enforcement to retain funds without convicting anyone of a crime.

“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,” Brown said in a statement.

“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.”

According to the Institute for Justice, the two individuals are “trapped in the upside-down world of civil forfeiture, where the government brings charges against property instead of people.” Under forfeiture laws, no one needs to be convicted or even charged with a crime for the money to be confiscated, and the standard of proof is a civil law standard, which is lower than the standard used in a criminal case.

“This is a pattern that we’ve seen at airports across the country,” Andrew Wimer, a spokesman for the Institute for Justice, told The Epoch Times.

“When they see large amounts of cash, they seize it. People shouldn’t have to fight in court over carrying cash legally.

“It is completely legal to fly with any amount of currency,” and TSA can’t confiscate money without probable cause.

The Institute for Justice is representing the plaintiffs pro bono “to make sure others don’t have the same of kind of horrifying experience,” Wimer said.

The civil rights lawsuit, filed Jan. 15, accuses the TSA and DEA of “seizing cash from travelers at airports without reasonable suspicion or probable cause and based solely on the amount of cash,” contrary to the Fourth Amendment.

The legal complaint asks “whether the government may seize a 79-year-old man’s life savings without any indication of criminal activity, pursuant to unlawful and unconstitutional federal agency policies or practices that violate the rights of thousands of air travelers each year.”

The lawsuit seeks the return of the “unconstitutionally seized cash and compensatory damages,” along with declaratory and injunctive relief against the government on behalf of others subject to such practices at airports across the country.

Government officials refused to comment.

Mary Brandenberger, chief of public affairs at DEA, declined to make a statement. TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein said, “TSA does not comment on cases of ongoing litigation.”

This article by Matthew Vadum appeared Jan. 23, 2020, in The Epoch Times.

Photo of Terry Rolin courtesy of Institute for Justice