Holiday Flyers Should Know, The Government Is On The Prowl For Cash

U.S. Customs and Border Protection recently tweeted out a photo of more than $33,000 it seized at Washington Dulles Airport. Details about the incident are scant. The press release from CBP only says that the money was taken from a male U.S. citizen flying to Egypt and that he was not criminally charged. The flyer was released, no telling whether he made his flight.

According to the CBP, the flyer reported that he had cash but only in the amount of $20,000. There is no limit to how much currency someone can take into the U.S. or fly out with, but federal law requires people traveling with more than $10,000 to report to a CBP officer and provide a U.S. Treasury Department form.

Paperwork violations like this one let the government rake in tens of millions of dollars from thousands of individuals each year. Few are ever charged with an actual crime. Thanks to a multiyear legal battle, the Institute for Justice was able to get records for nearly two decades’ worth of seizures at our nation’s airports. The total amount of currency seized between 2000 and 2016 was $2 billion. Dulles Airport alone accounted for $72 million in seized currency during those years.

Those numbers may be eye-popping, but they don’t accurately represent all the money seized at our nation’s airports. The report only covers seizures from Department of Homeland Security agencies. Agencies under the U.S. Department of Justice, such as the Drug Enforcement ministration, and local law enforcement also seize money at airports but it is not easy to determine the total amounts through public records. And the records IJ obtained did not make it possible to count even DHS seizures at all U.S. airports.

While failing to accurately report cash is a crime, DHS agents don’t treat it like a serious crime. Only about 1 in 10 seizures of unreported currency was connected with an arrest. Like the man traveling to Egypt, most are let go after agents have taken their money.

Most people flying into the U.S. know that they need to report traveling with cash because they are required to fill out a form before they clear customs. But those leaving the U.S. may only become aware of the reporting requirement when they are stopped on the jetway and pulled aside by agents. That is what happened to Anthonia Nwaorie in 2017.

Anthonia is a U.S. citizen and nurse in Texas. For years, she saved up money to open up a clinic for women and children in her native Nigeria. An international wire transfer for this amount would have taken weeks, so she packed $4,000 in her carryon and another $36,000 in her checked bag.

Traveling through Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, she was stopped on the jetway and interrogated by CBP officers. A citizen for more than 20 years, Anthonia was taken aback when they started by asking her how long she had been in the country. When she was asked how much cash she was travelling with, she initially told the officers only about the $4,000 she had with her. All of her money was taken from her but she was not arrested or charged with a crime.

Only afterward did Anthonia find out what she would have had to do to fly legally with the cash. CBP expected her not only to know about the requirement, but to fill out the form and then drop it off at an office miles away from the airport terminal.

Five months later, Anthonia received a letter from the government informing her that it would return her money but only if she agreed to a “Hold Harmless Release Agreement” that demanded she give up her rights to get interest on the money or sue agents over violations of her constitutional rights. After she sued with the Institute for Justice, her money was returned without having to sign the statement. Her case continues today.

Was the man bound for Egypt up to no good? Since he wasn’t arrested and likely will never be charged with a crime, we may never know. Maybe like Anthonia he only wrote down the amount in his carryon. Maybe he decided at the last minute to bring additional money and didn’t update the form. That he reported carrying money to begin with makes it seem less likely that he was up to no good.

Air travel is up, with AAA estimating that more than 4.5 million Americans will fly over the Thanksgiving holiday. Flying domestically with any amount of cash is legal and does not require reporting, but it is also risky. In recent years, DEA agents have seized money from a Boston woman taking her father’s cash savings through the Pittsburgh airport, a Tampa woman flying home with money from the sale of a car, and a New Orleans grandfather on a trip to purchase a truck. All of them had their money returned, but only after they sued the government.

This jetway robbery is made possible because of civil forfeiture, a process that allows the government to permanently take money and other property without charging someone with a crime. Most federal forfeitures are done through an administrative process that doesn’t even involve a judge. Few Americans know that this is happening until it happens to them on their way to visit friends and family or conduct business. It’s not right and it’s past time for Congress and judges to end civil forfeiture and require law enforcement to take money only following a criminal conviction.

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