The TSA seized one contractor’s cash for a vehicle, but even though it was legal and documented, they won’t return it.
Traveling with Cash
In the United States, there is no limit on how much cash you can carry on domestic flights. When travelling internationally to the US (and most other countries) $10,000 USD (or equivalent) is the cash limit without declaring the cash you are bringing in to limit money laundering efforts.
Even when carrying over $10,000, possession of money over the limit does not trigger cash seizure, however, a failure to declare it or without some documentation stating the origins of the cash may cause seizure or a penalty. It doesn’t matter how you choose to carry the cash either, though taping stacks of cash to your legs or leaving it loose in a duffel bag filled to the top may draw attention unnecessarily.
Contractor Cash Seized at Airport
Boris Nulman, an employee for a business in Tampa, departing for Cleveland to buy large trucks for his employer carried $191,500 in cash through to TSA en route to his flight. The TSA stopped Nulman for additional screening and then the TSA seized cash that Nulman was carrying but for $10,000 (the international limit for undeclared cash) giving him a receipt for the seizure short of the amount taken.
“The lawsuit says an agent gave Nulman a receipt to document the $181,500, but the federal agencies now say only $159,950 was confiscated. That’s $21,550 less than what the company says was seized.”
Without the cash to purchase the assets, Nulman did not continue to Cleveland to make the purchase.
While carrying that much cash is not illegal it’s not advisable either. Loose currency can become lost, burned, damaged or torn and as a payment method for this amount of money isn’t even easy for the recipient to cash.
There are plenty of transactions that require cash of this size. In this case, the seller was trying to avoid bank holds due to fraud suspicion from cashier’s checks originating in Florida. Following this incident, Global Entry for both the business owner and the travelling employee, Nulman, was revoked. Business owner Rozenberg suspects his revocation was not coincidental.
This Government Seizure Was Illegal, But Hard to Fight
From the evidence presented in this story, any seizure of the cash was illegal. I don’t blame the TSA for wanting to have a word with the employee and the employer shouldn’t have put them in that position but that doesn’t make it illegal just because it is unusual. The TSA also handed over the cash to the CBP (Customs and Border Protection) which should have had nothing to do with a domestic matter anyway.
The difference in the amount seized notwithstanding, the CBP listed their reason as “specified unlawful activity” though the owner of the business was able to provide documentation showing the legitimacy of the money. Despite presenting this evidence, or being charged with a crime, the business owner is now a plaintiff in a lawsuit to get the money returned.
If he is successful, he’s unlikely to receive the entire amount seized (due to the discrepancy in the amount listed on the receipt) and will still have to pay for his lawyer to fight for his legal money back. Further, stress on cashflow of the business as well as lost revenue/profit from not being able to purchase and utilize the trucks is just another way the plaintiff loses.
Cases like this have been hard to fight for a number of reasons. In this specific incident, the business owner can show that $191,500 was taken from the bank, but the employee returned with $10,000 and a receipt for $159,950.
While I don’t doubt the honesty of the TSA/CBP officials and assume that in the room where the money was counted there was a working surveillance camera that could verify which amount is accurate, where did the other $21,550 go? When the CBP deposited the money into the bank, how much did they deposit and how does that correlate with any other seizures? Did the employee “lose” $21,550 en route to the airport before it was confiscated?
Other government agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration have done the same with cash when they believe it could be used for nefarious purposes. Civil asset forfeiture has been a rising problem with some government entities as John Olliver discussed in late 2014 (video contains NSFW language):
Illegal Seizure In Pittsburgh
According to the Washington Post, an elderly man was carrying a large amount of cash at Pittsburgh International Airport and was stopped at the gate following notification from TSA. Terry Rolin, the railroad engineer shared this experience through a relative:
“Rebecca Brown was catching a flight home from the Pittsburgh airport early the next day and said she didn’t have time to stop at a bank. She confirmed on a government website that it’s legal to carry any amount of cash on a domestic flight and tucked the money in her carry-on.
But just minutes before departure in late August, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent met her at the busy gate and questioned her about the cash, which showed up on a security scan. He insisted Brown put Rolin on the phone to confirm her story. Brown said Rolin, who is suffering mental decline, was unable to verify some details.” – Washington Post
Unfortunately, it seems to be happening more and more often.
“Dan Alban, a senior attorney for the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Brown and Rolin, said the family’s story is not unique.” – Washington Post
It’s cases like this where training would help, but citizenry need to also know their rights. While it might be inconvenient to miss your flight to resolve the matter, getting a competent attorney on the phone will certainly preserve your rights, make an account of the money seized, and may force officials to rethink their actions or check to make sure that they are in the right. That little pause might have saved both of these examples the trouble in the first place, and frankly, protected law enforcement that thought they were doing their job from a lawsuit.
The TSA acted reasonably in questioning a person carrying an excessive amount of cash though they did not have any authorization to do anything about it. If proof was supplied proving the veracity of the funds, the federal government should return the money back without haste.
It shouldn’t have held it in the first place and shouldn’t take a battle in federal court to return the seized money for which the agency had no right to retain without proof of criminal activity even if it was an unusually large amount of cash. If agents acted in what they felt was the best execution of their duty, that’s fair enough, but there should be no delay in correcting that mistake and remedying the cash amount discrepancy. There is no current law domestically against carrying any amount of cash during air travel but it’s still not advisable to take your life savings in twenties and hundreds if avoidable.
What do you think? Should the government give back the cash without going to trial? Does the government owe more than that due to financial damage to the business? What do you think happened to the extra $21,550?