Can TSA Seize Cash?

What happens if you bring a large amount of cash to the airport for a domestic flight? A TSA screener might discover the cash at the airport’s security checkpoint. Checked luggage goes through a similar screening process.

Does TSA have any authority to seize cash for a civil asset forfeiture action? The short answer is “absolutely not.” TSA cannot confiscate cash from a traveler or their luggage at the airport.

Nevertheless, TSA screeners illegally detain travelers until law enforcement officers arrive and seize the cash. By working together, TSA and law enforcement officers have found creative ways to seize money from travelers for civil asset forfeiture proceedings.

Even when TSA doesn’t detain the traveler, the TSA screener might provide a “secret tip” to law enforcement officers who can detain the traveler before they board the plane for a domestic flight. TSA routinely provides these secret tips to federal agents with CBP, HSI, DEA, and local law enforcement officers.

How do TSA screeners provide these secret tips? The TSA screener might send a message to a nearby law enforcement officer that says:

“A traveler named ______ just passed through a TSA checkpoint. The scanner detected a large sum of U.S. Currency estimated to be in excess of $10,000 in a carry on bag.

The passenger can be described as ______. The carry on bag can be described as _________.

The traveler is now headed to Gate Number __ in Terminal Number __ for a domestic flight number ___ departing at _____ a.m./p.m.”

Attorneys for TSA Seizures of U.S. Currency at the Airport

Attorney Leslie Sammis handles civil asset forfeiture cases involving the seizure of U.S. Currency at the airport. She helps travelers after agents with TSA discover their cash.

After the seizure, the attorneys at Sammis Law Firm prepare and file a verified claim for court action showing your interest in the property. Then we help you file the claim with the agency that seized the money.

In federal civil asset proceedings, filing the verified claim starts a 90-day deadline for the Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) to force the agency to give the money back or file a complaint against the property in the U.S. District Court.

Filing a claim for court action is the only way to challenge the taking to determine whether the seizure of cash was legal from the inception and whether sufficient grounds exist to continue the forfeiture proceeding. The procedures for civil asset forfeiture proceedings vary from state to state. Even when a federal agency seizes the cash at the airport, the procedures vary slightly from agency to agency.

Call us for a free consultation if your money was seized at the airport. We take airport currency seizure cases throughout Florida and the rest of the United States. Attorneys across the country contact us about joining their cases as co-counsel.

If your detention violated the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution for warrantless searches and seizures during prolonged detentions, contact us to fight the case. Contact us to find out how to get seized money back from the airport.

Call 813-250-0500.


What Allows the Law Enforcement Officer to Seize Money at the Airport?

If TSA isn’t allowed to seize money at the airport, why is a law enforcement officer allowed to do so?

To seize money for civil asset forfeiture, the officer needs “probable cause” that the money was involved in drug trafficking or money laundering. The purpose of the investigation is to gather enough circumstantial evidence to support a finding of probable cause.

Without a warrant, the officer needs “free and voluntary” consent to detain the traveler and conduct the search. So a traveler is not typically required to stop, answer questions, or consent to searches.

Without giving “free and voluntary consent” for the search, the officer typically has no legal basis to search the traveler to find and seize the money. To end the encounter, the traveler might say:

“I don’t stop to answer questions….I don’t consent to searches…. Am I free to leave? I am leaving now.”

If the law enforcement officer tells you that you may not leave, your attorney can later challenge the legality of the detention. Even if the officer has a valid basis for the detention, you are not required to answer the officer’s questions about whether you have U.S. Currency or the reason for your travels.


Does Cooperating with a Civil Asset Forfeiture Investigation Help?

Does cooperating with the investigation work in the traveler’s favor? Probably not because seizing the money requires the officer to have “probable cause” that it was involved in drug trafficking or money laundering.

That “probable cause” determination often comes from highly circumstantial evidence and completely innocent behaviors. Those innocent behaviors might include:

  • having a large amount of cash on a domestic flight;
  • concealing the cash;
  • bundling the cash with rubber bands;
  • buying a plane ticket at the last minute; or
  • flying to the West Coast.

Not talking to law enforcement makes it more difficult for them to develop “probable cause” to seize the cash.

Investigators are rarely honest about TSA’s providing secret tips. Instead, the officer might claim in his report that the detention was “random.” Or that a K9  dog sniffed the bag randomly and gave an alert.

If the dog gives a positive alert, the officer might pull the bag without a warrant and take it to the traveler to ask for “consent” to search it. Or the officer might detain the traveler at the gate and ask permission to pull the bag to be searched. Either way, without a warrant, these types of searches are highly problematic under the constraints of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

An attorney can file a judicial claim and motion to suppress evidence gathered illegally for civil asset forfeiture proceedings. The motion to suppress might lead the court to dismiss the case. Obtaining the surveillance video at the TSA screening checkpoint or the boarding area is critical to showing how the Fourth Amendment violation occurred.

If your money was seized at the airport, you should retain an experienced civil asset forfeiture attorney who can help you fight to get it back quickly.


How Much Cash Can You Fly With?

TSA screeners often stop and detain travelers for bringing a wad of cash to the airport for a domestic flight. Although TSA can’t take your money, they might call a law enforcement officer to seize it for civil asset forfeiture.

So, how much cash can you fly with? You can fly with any amount of cash. No law prohibits you from bringing any amount of money on a flight. Likewise, the TSA has no rules that limit how much money you can bring through security. In other words, the TSA has no cash limit per person.

So you can bring any amount of money to the airport. Flying with a large amount of cash on a flight is not illegal. Nevertheless, bringing cash to the airport increases the chance it will be seized for a civil asset forfeiture proceeding during a search and detention.

Are these searches and detentions legal? The short answer is “No, usually not.” As a practical matter, so few travelers know how to file a verified claim for court action to contest the legality of the initial seizure that the agency is rarely forced to return the money.

Over the years, these agencies have gotten very good at separating people from their money and discouraging them from exercising their rights to contest the seizure. Law enforcement officers that seize money from travelers at the airport vary from location to location but might include:

No matter which state or federal agency took your money. Our experienced civil asset forfeiture attorneys can point you in the right direction immediately after the taking. Act quickly to preserve all avenues of attacking the seizure.

Although there are no rules limiting the amount of money you can bring on a flight, there are rules about disclosing currency on an international flight. If you are traveling on an international flight and have $10,000 or more in your possession, you must disclose the amount of U.S. Currency in your possession on a FinCEN 105 form. Those disclosure rules do not apply on a domestic flight.


What Authority Does TSA Have for Searches and Seizures?

TSA Screeners only have the authority to detain the traveler, their carry-on luggage, or their personal effects, for long enough to determine whether:

  • any of the defined prohibited items are present;
  • the traveler and their carry-on luggage and personal effects do not present a threat to transportation security; and
  • the transportation security screening has concluded.

Despite the limited authority and duties afforded to TSA, the screeners often follow an unwritten TSA policy or practice of seizing travelers’ currency or carry-on luggage. These improper actions often occur after the TSA Screeners conclude that the items do not threaten transportation security.

TSA Screeners make these seizures to hold the traveler’s currency, carry-on luggage, personal effects, and/or person until law-enforcement officers can arrive, without regard for whether reasonable suspicion or probable cause exists for the seizures.


What Authority Does TSA Have to Seize Money for Forfeiture?

TSA has no authority to seize money or other valuable property for forfeiture. Instead, TSA’s authority to operate is granted by statute.

For example, 49 U.S.C. § 114 makes TSA“responsible for security in all modes of transportation,” including the authority to conduct air transportation security screening operations as provided in 49 U.S.C. § 114(e).

Additionally, 49 U.S.C. § 114(f)(3) allows TSA to develop “policies, strategies, and plans for dealing with threats to transportation security.” TSA’s authority over air transportation security is explained in 49 U.S.C. § 44903. TSA’s authority to screen passengers and property is outlined in 49 U.S.C. § 44901.

TSA’s statutory authority is so narrowly limited to these purposes that Congress felt it necessary to expressly authorize TSA to keep loose change and other money that is incidentally left behind at transportation security screening checkpoints. See 49 U.S.C. § 44945.

Although TSA Screeners conduct transportation security screenings at airport checkpoints, these are administrative searches conducted to ensure limited transportation security; they are not to be conducted for general law enforcement purposes.

TSA’s screening procedures are designed to assess whether air passengers or their luggage threaten transportation security by screening for dangerous items.

The scope of TSA transportation security screenings is limited to “the inspection of individuals and property for weapons, explosives, and incendiaries.” 49 C.F.R. § 1540.5; see also 49 U.S.C. § 44902.

Air travelers “may not have a weapon, explosive, or incendiary, on or about the individual’s person or accessible property.” 49 C.F.R. § 1540.111. The definition of “weapon, explosive, or incendiary” is defined by TSA’s exhaustive list found at 70 Fed. Reg. 9878 (Mar. 1, 2005).

Notably, TSA’s exhaustive list of defined weapons, explosives, or incendiaries does not include “cash,” “currency,” or “money.”


What Should You Do if TSA Stops You Because of the Cash?

No one wants to be hassled by TSA or law enforcement officers at the airport for bringing cash on a domestic flight.

On an international flight, if you have $10,000 in cash, carefully fill out the FinCEN 105 form disclosing exactly how much money you have in your possession before the flight. If you are traveling with others, fill out the form listing the total amount carried by everyone in your group.

Deliver a copy of the FinCEN 105 form to CBP before the flight and keep extra copies in your possession. You should answer CBP’s questions about how much money you are bringing on the international flight since you must legally disclose that information.

For a domestic flight, you are NOT required to disclose that you are carrying money on the flight. Consider two different strategies. We are not recommending any strategy at all. Instead, these examples might help you spot legal issues that arise in these cases.

A minimalist approach involves simply asserting constitutional rights in one of the following ways:

  • If you are questioned by TSA or law enforcement about how much cash you have, you can say: “I do not answer questions.”
  • If asked additional questions, remain silent, restate your previous statement, or say: “Why do you ask?”
  • If any law enforcement officer asks for identification, you can say: “No, thank you. I do not wish to present my identification. Am I free to leave?”
  • If you are asked to consent to a search of your person or luggage after you pass through the TSA checkpoint, you can say: “I do not consent to searches. Am I free to leave?”
  • Keep in mind that the airport probably has a video surveillance system that is recording the encounter. Your attorney might later be able to get that video.
    • For this reason, a person’s body language might convey that they are not consenting to a search and wish to end the encounter.
    • For example, you can shake your head no and point at your wristwatch and the direction you want to go.
    • When appropriate, you can slowly walk away to see if the law enforcement officer will order you to stop or physically detain you.
  • If your money is seized, ask for a receipt without arguing with the person who seized the money.
  • If you are not given a receipt, your attorney can later find out how to get a copy of the receipt.
  • Remember the exact time and location of the detention so that your attorney can later obtain the video surveillance of the encounter.
  • Save the paper copy of your boarding pass because it shows the boarding gate for your flight and other helpful information.

Alternatively, a person might fully cooperate and waive their rights by doing the following:

  • Answer all of the officer’s questions freely and voluntarily (even though you are not required to do so).
  • Give consent for a search of your person, luggage, cell phone, or laptop computer (even though you are not required to do so).
  • For example, you might say:
    • “Yes, I am happy to permit you to search me and my luggage. Please look through my cell phone and laptop computer even though you do not have a warrant or any other legal basis. I am giving you my free and voluntary consent.”
  • Give the officer the code to unlock your cell phone and access your private information (which might make it more likely they will seize and keep the cell phone as “evidence”).
  • Provide tangible evidence requested by the officer, including an electronic copy of your bank statements or your tax returns if you can access them from your cell phone (which might then be seized as evidence).
  • Make statements that help the officer obtain “probable cause” including:
    • where you came from and where you are traveling to;
    • how the property was acquired, used, stored, and concealed;
    • what you intend to do with the money when your flight lands;
    • when you last filed your taxes and the income listed on your tax returns;
    • why you purchased the ticket at the last minute;
    • how often you travel to the west coast;
    • whether you do or do not have a criminal record; or
    • whether you plan to buy a small amount of marijuana for personal use when you get to your destination.
  • Disclaimer ownership of the money by saying it belongs to someone else.
    • For example, you could explain that some of the money belongs to your friend so that law enforcement officers can then begin an investigation of your friend.
    • If you disclaim ownership, you might be asked to sign a form that says you disclaimed ownership of the money, making it harder (although not impossible) to assert a valid claim later.

If the officer develops probable cause that the money was involved in a drug crime or money laundering, the evidence gathered can be used against you to justify the seizure. By remaining silent, it might be less likely that the officer will develop probable cause to seize the money.

We’ve seen people take both types of approaches or something in between. Depending on the circumstances, each approach has specific pros and cons. If your money or other valuable property was seized at the airport, contact an experienced civil asset forfeiture attorney at Sammis Law Firm.

Call 813-250-0500.


This article was last updated on Friday, April 12, 2024.