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 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 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? 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 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 [time].”
How does the officer seize the money? Without a warrant, the officer needs “free and voluntary” consent to detain the traveler and conduct the search.
So a traveler is not required to stop, answer questions, or consent to searches. Without giving “free and voluntary consent,” the officer typically has no legal basis to search the traveler to find and seize the money.
To end the encounter, the traveler might simply say:
“I don’t stop to answer questions….I don’t consent to searches…. Am I free to leave?”
Cooperating with the investigation rarely works in the traveler’s favor. To seize the money, the officer needs “probable cause” that it was involved in drug trafficking or money laundering.
The problem is that “probable cause” often comes from innocent behaviors such as having a large amount of cash on a domestic flight, concealing it, bundling cash with rubber bands, buying a plane ticket at the last minute, or flying to the west coast.
For this reason, the less you speak to the investigator, the more difficult it is for them to legally develop “probable cause” to seize the cash.
The investigator is rarely honest about the fact that TSA provided the secret tip. 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, 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 detain the traveler 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.
For civil asset forfeiture proceedings, an attorney can file a motion to suppress any evidence gathered illegally which might lead to the dismissal of the entire case.
Obtaining the surveillance video at the TSA screening checkpoint or the boarding area is key 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.
Attorneys for TSA Seizures of U.S. Currency at the Airport
Attorney Leslie Sammis helps travelers after agents with TSA discover their U.S. Currency and cause its seizure for a civil asset forfeiture proceeding.
After the seizure, we prepare and file a verified claim for court action showing your interest in the property. Then we can 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.
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. 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, then contact us to fight the case.
Contact us to find out how to get seized money back from the airport.
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:
- Customs and Border Protection (CBP)
- Homeland Security Investigations (HSI)
- Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
- local law enforcement officers including:
- airport police
- a local police department
- the sheriff’s office
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 or carry-on luggage. These improper actions often occur after the TSA Screeners concludes that the items do not pose a threat to transportation security.
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. TSA’s 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 “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. 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 with more than $10,000, 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).
You should deliver a copy of the FinCEN 105 form to CBP before the flight and keep extra copies in your possession. You should answer any questions CBP has about how much money you are carrying on the international 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 constitutional rights in the following ways:
- If you are questioned by TSA or law enforcement about the amount of cash you are carrying, you can say: “I do not answer questions. Am I free to leave now?”
- 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 am not going to give you my driver’s license unless I am required to do so. I would like to end this encounter and catch my flight. Am I free to leave now?”
- 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 now?”
- 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 which shows the gate of the flight and other information that might be needed for the case.
Alternatively, you can fully cooperate and waive your rights by doing the following:
- Answer 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, cell phone, or laptop computer (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 person, my bag, and look through my cell phone and laptop computer even though you do not have a warrant or any other legal basis. So I will give you my 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 your 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 will later be used against you 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
- that 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 wife or girlfriend so that law enforcement officers can then begin an investigation of your wife or girlfriend.
Understand that if the officer develops probable cause that the money might have been involved in a drug crime or money laundering, then the evidence gathered can be used against you to justify the seizure.
That seizure might not have occurred if you had simply remained silent and asked to end the encounter or walked 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.
This article was last updated on Friday, November 18, 2022.