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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 cash intended 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, and DEA.

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.”

If the money is located in the checked luggage during the screening process, then the TSA screener or airline employee might contact state or federal law enforcement officers. Those officers will quickly bring a drug dog to the scene to sniff the checked luggage.

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 for forfeiture 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.

Customs investigates travelers who bring more than $10,000 on an international flight unless they disclose the U.S. Currency on a FinCEN 105 form. Is there a TSA cash limit? No, there is no limit on the cash you are permitted to bring on a domestic flight and there is no rule that requires you to disclose carrying more than $10,000 on a domestic 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.”

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 Thursday, January 13, 2022. 

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