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Editorial: Money grab: Law enforcement seizes money without cause

The Editorial Board, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Op Eds

Traveling with a large sum of cash is probably a bad idea from a safety standpoint, but it shouldn't mean you risk having that money taken away by law enforcement because someone labels it suspicious activity.

A woman from Massachusetts claims that's exactly what happened to her when she tried to board a plane in Pittsburgh last summer while carrying $82,373 in her purse, money that was her father's life savings and entrusted to her for deposit in a joint account.

Terry Rolin, 79, a retired railroad worker from South Fayette, Pa., and his daughter, Rebecca Brown of Lowell, Mass., filed suit in federal court against the Transportation Security Administration and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration claiming the money was illegally seized and should be returned to them.

And that's exactly what should happen. The incident amounts to legal theft by the government and the trampling of an individual's Fourth Amendment right against illegal search and seizure.

In the lawsuit, Brown said the money was flagged by a TSA agent when her carry-on luggage was X-rayed. A state trooper questioned her about the money, but she was allowed to leave for the gate with the cash. Later, a DEA agent and trooper approached her at the gate and interrogated her about why she was carrying so much cash. The agent insisted on talking with her father, despite Brown's objection that her father has cognitive issues and would be groggy and confused since it was only 7 a.m.

She also told the agent she and her siblings planned to buy her father a new truck as a surprise.

After talking with her father, the agent told Brown "your answers don't match" and seized the cash.

The DEA has since informed Rolin and Brown -- neither of whom has been charged with a crime -- that it plans to keep the money through civil asset forfeiture, a legal process that allows law enforcement to seize money or property from an individual without charging that person.

If it seems unfathomable that a law enforcement agency could seize the cash you have in your airport luggage -- for virtually no reason and without charges -- think again. The nonprofit Institute for Justice, which is representing Rolin and Brown in their class-action suit, said between 2006 and 2016, the DEA seized more than $200 million from 5,200 individuals at the 15 busiest airports in the country.

 

Dan Alban, an Institute for Justice lawyer, said the formal notice of intent to forfeit the money usually carries some vague legal claim such as the activity fit the pattern of a drug courier.

There is administrative recourse for individuals attempting to have their money returned by the confiscating agency, but most prove unsuccessful or the individual gives up because of the legal costs in retaining an attorney.

The case involving Rolin and Brown highlights the abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws. It's one of the reasons the Institute for Justice, which has won similar cases, filed a class-action suit, asking the courts to rule that agencies such as TSA and DEA can no longer conduct seizures without probable cause and the filing of charges.

Carrying a significant amount of cash into an airport, though unwise, is not a crime. Having it seized without cause or charges filed is unconscionable.

The courts should rule in favor of Mr. Rolin and Ms. Brown, have their money returned and put an end to future seizures.

(c)2020 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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