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Can TSA Seize Cash?

When a person travels to the airport with a large amount of cash in their checked or carry-on luggage, it might be discovered by a TSA screener at the airport’s security checkpoint. Does TSA or a TSA screener have any authority to seize the cash for a civil asset forfeiture action?

The short answer is “absolutely not.” TSA is not permitted to confiscate cash from a traveler at the airport.

Nevertheless, the TSA screener might illegally detain a traveler until a law enforcement officer arrives so that the officer can seize the cash. By working together, TSA and law enforcement officers have found creative ways to seize larger amounts of U.S. Currency 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 then detain the traveler for the purpose of seizing the U.S. Currency. TSA routinely provides these tips to federal agents with CBP, HSI, DEA, and local law enforcement officers.

How do TSA screeners provide these secret tips? One common example would involve a TSA screener sending a message to a nearby law enforcement officer that says:

“A traveler named ______ just passed through a TSA checkpoint. The airport scanner and screening equipment just detected the presence of 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 Flight Number ___ departing at [time].”

After getting such a tip from TSA, the state or federal law enforcement officer might approach the traveler and start asking questions. The law enforcement officer might ask to search the traveler and then discover the money.

The law enforcement officer is not usually honest about the fact that TSA provided the secret tip. Instead, the law enforcement officer might claim the detention was “random.”

Or the officer might claim that a K9 dog sniffed the bag randomly and gave an alert. If the drug dog gives a positive alert, then the officer might pull the bag without a warrant and take the bag to the traveler to ask for “consent” to search it. Or the officer might contact the traveler waiting at the gate and ask for permission to pull the bag so that it can 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.

What does the TSA or the TSA screener get out of the arraignment? We’ve seen several cases in which the TSA screener or their supervisor was promised a secret monetary reward based upon the amount of money seized.

Those actions are almost always taken without a warrant or an exception to the warrant requirement under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. As a result, 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.

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

Attorney Leslie Sammis helps travelers after TSA discovers their U.S. Currency and causes its seizure for a civil asset forfeiture proceeding. After the seizure, we prepare and file a verified claim showing your interest in the property. Then we can help you file the verified claim with the agency that seized the money.

Filing the verified claim is the first step in demanding court action to determine whether the seizure of cash at the airport was legal from the inception and whether sufficient grounds exist to continue the forfeiture proceeding.

Filing the verified claim also starts a 90-day deadline for the Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) to give the money back or file a complaint against the property in the U.S. District Court.

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.

If your money was seized at the airport, call us for a free consultation. We take airport currency seizure cases throughout Florida and the rest of the United States.

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

Call 813-250-0500.


Are Airport Searches for U.S. Currency Legal?

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 attempt to call in a law enforcement officer to seize your money for civil asset forfeiture.

How much cash can you fly with? In other words, does TSA have a limit for the amount of money you can bring through security? No, you can bring any amount of money to the airport. It is not illegal to fly with a large amount of cash on a flight.

However, if you are traveling on an international flight and have more than $10,000 in your possession, then you must disclose the amount of U.S. Currency in your possession on a FinCEN 105 form.

On a domestic flight, there is no rule that requires you to disclose carrying more than $10,000 on the flight.

Are these searches and detentions legal? The short answer is “No, usually not.” Although 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 preventing them from having any effective way 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.


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, carry-on luggage, personal effects, and/or persons after TSA Screeners have concluded the transportation security screening and determined that no items that pose a threat to transportation security are present.

TSA Screeners make these seizures in order 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 provides TSA with the “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, while the authority to screen passengers and property is set forth in 49 U.S.C. § 44901.

TSA’s statutory authority is so narrowly limited to these purposes that Congress felt it was necessary to specifically 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 transportation security screenings at airport checkpoints by TSA Screeners are administrative searches conducted for the limited purpose of ensuring transportation security, the searches are not to be conducted for general law enforcement purposes.

TSA’s screening procedures are designed to assess whether air passengers or their luggage are a threat to transportation security by screening for dangerous items. In fact, 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 the term “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 You are Carrying?

No one wants to be hassled by TSA or law enforcement officers at the airport for bringing cash on a domestic flight. If you must bring cash on a domestic flight, you should think about how to handle questions about why you are carrying so much cash.

On an international flight, you should ALWAYS carefully fill out the FinCEN 105 form disclosing exactly how much money you have in your possession as well as the money carried by anyone else in your group on an international flight. You should deliver a copy of the FinCEN 105 form to CBP before the flight. You should answer any questions CBP has about how much money you are carrying on the flight since you are legally required to disclose such information although you are not necessarily required to answer any other questions.

For a domestic flight, you are not required to disclose that you are carrying money on the flight. An attorney might suggest two different strategies.

First, you can take a minimalist approach by simply asserting your rights by doing the following:

  • If you are questioned by TSA or law enforcement about the amount of cash you are carrying, you can say: “I do not answer personal questions. Am I free to leave?”
  • After each additional question, you can just remain silent or restate your previous statement.
  • If the law enforcement officer asks for your identification, you can say: “I wish to end this encounter. I am not going to give you my driver’s license unless you are telling me that I am legally required to do so. Otherwise, I would like to end this encounter and go catch my flight. 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 so your body language should also convey the fact that you 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. Or you can start to slowly walk in that direction to see if the law enforcement officer will order you to stop or otherwise physically detain you. That way, someone looking at the surveillance video later could see from your body language that you are clearly not consenting to the detention.
  • If your money is seized, simply get 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 for you.
  • Make sure you note the exact time and location of the detention so that your attorney can later obtain the video surveillance of the encounter.
  • Save your boarding pass.

Alternatively, you can cooperate and waive your rights by doing the following:

  • Cooperate with the investigation by answering all of the officer’s questions on a free and voluntary basis (even though you are not required to do so).
  • Give consent for a search of your person, luggage, or cell phone on a free and voluntary basis even though you are not required to do so.
    • For example, you might say: “Yes officer, I am happy to give you permission to search my bag and look through my cell phone even though you do not have a warrant.”
  • 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 your cell phone as “evidence”).
  • Make statements that will later be used against you including:
    • how the property was acquired, used, stored, concealed, etc.
    • where you came from and where you are traveling;
    • 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
  •  Admit the property is contraband, came from the sale of contraband, or will be used to purchase contraband in the future
    • For example, you could explain that you are going to California to buy marijuana
  • Disclaimer ownership of the money by saying it belongs to someone else
    • For example, you could explain that the money belongs to your girlfriend so that law enforcement officers can then begin an investigation of your girlfriend
  • Provide tangible evidence requested by the officer including bank statements or your tax returns

Understand that if the officer develops probable cause that the money might have been involved in any type of drug crime or money laundering, then the evidence gathered can be used against you to justify the seizure that might not have occurred if you had simply remained silent and asked to end the encounter and walking away.

Keep in mind that the probable cause standard is relatively low and might be based on circumstantial evidence such as the fact that you recently purchased the ticket, are headed to the west coast or brought a large amount of money in a checked or carry-on bag.

We’ve seen people take both types of approaches or something in between. Each has its own pros and cons depending on the circumstances.

If your money or other valuable property was seized at the airport, then contact an experienced civil asset forfeiture attorney at Sammis Law Firm. Call 813-250-0500.


This article was last updated on Friday, June 17, 2022.

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