from the real-loser-here-is-still-US-citizens-and-their-tax-dollars dept
In the past week, the federal government has twice(!) been forced to return money it stole from travelers just because it could. In both cases, American citizens were trying to board domestic flights at US airports. And in both cases, despite it not being illegal to carry large amounts of cash on domestic flights, the government decided the cash had to have been illegally obtained, and moved forward with forfeiture proceedings.
The first case involves 58-year-old Kermit Warren, a New Orleans native who was accosted by federal agents at the Columbus, Ohio airport. Warren had $30,000 on him which he had planned to use to buy a tow truck for his scrap metal business. Unfortunately, the sale fell through, forcing him to purchase a one-way flight back home.
Warren’s cash caught the eye of a TSA screener. Screeners are supposed to look for threats to transportation security (that’s right in the agency name) and/or contraband. US currency is not contraband but it is definitely on the TSA’s radar, thanks to the DEA’s purported “anti-drug” efforts. The DEA actually pays screeners to search for cash. Screeners have responded by locating cash far more frequently than explosives or contraband.
The TSA alerted the DEA. Agents showed up and questioned Warren. They didn’t like his answers — some of which were untruthful (he falsely claimed to be a retired cop). But it really wouldn’t have mattered what Warren’s answers were. The DEA wanted the cash and even sworn affidavits from multiple family members and business associates wouldn’t have changed what happened next.
The DEA brought in a drug dog as a seizure permission slip. The dog (completely unsurprisingly) “alerted” on the money, having “detected” the odor of drugs. Almost all cash in circulation has drug residue on it. That should not be considered probable cause, much less reasonable suspicion. Despite making vague allegations Warren was involved in the illicit drug trade, the DEA let him go. But it kept the money.
Warren fought back, a move the government clearly didn’t anticipate. It lost spectacularly.
[P]rosecutors eventually backed down after Warren’s lawyers presented them with several pieces of exonerating evidence, including text messages with the owner of the truck and financial documents showing his income over the years.
In addition to returning all of the seized money – $28,180 – prosecutors agreed to dismiss the case against him with prejudice, meaning they cannot go after the money at a later date.
However, it wasn’t a total loss for the government. It managed to deter any future losses from this case by getting Warren to agree not to sue agents for violating his rights.
As part of the deal, Warren agreed not to pursue legal action against the government.
And, even though the government agreed to return his money, it still hasn’t. Apparently it needs a few more weeks to find the money it took from him. On top of that, the government has no apology for stealing a citizen’s cash and then sticking him with the burden of proof. All the government needs is an unproven allegation to take cash, which is completely the opposite of the way the judicial system is supposed to work.
The second case involves the same elements: a US airport, a domestic flight, some cash, the TSA, the DEA, unsubstantiated claims about drug dealing, and the theft of tens of thousands of dollars from an innocent citizen.
On January 7, 2020, [New York filmmaker Keddins Etienne] was flying from John F. Kennedy International Airport to California, where he planned to work on two projects: a documentary about the impact of forest fires on cannabis producers in Mendocino County and a remake of Takeshi Kitano’s 2000 film Brother, about a Japanese gangster who flees to Los Angeles after his boss is killed in a battle with another Yakuza clan. Etienne had lined up interviews for the documentary, and he had about $69,000, mostly in hundreds and fifties, to hire crew members, rent equipment, and cover other expenses.
Because his work would take him to some “shady places,” Etienne says, he stashed the money inside an old, broken Xbox that he put in his carry-on bag. “I didn’t want anyone to suspect that I had any type of cash on me,” he says. “I was hiding the money from the usual suspects, so to speak.” Instead, the money was snatched by a DEA agent, Antonio LoGrande, who arrived at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint where Etienne was screened after Etienne told a TSA officer what was inside the Xbox.
Agent LoGrande then made some coy remarks (“You know what this looks like, right?“) and then sent Etienne packing, albeit without the cash he had packed.
Etienne fought back. He secured the representation of longtime TSA critic/current lawyer Jon Corbett, who started the process of recovering the stolen money. The government fought back as well, digging through Etienne’s bank accounts, apparently in hopes of finding transactions to hang a “structuring” charge on, since it was unable to find anything linking the seized cash to illegal sources.
The DEA also offered to give Etienne some of his money back if he would just walk away from the forfeiture after the feds took their 10% skim ($6,852) off the top. Etienne and Corbett rejected this offer, maintaining their original assertion that the government was entirely in the wrong. Shortly before the deadline to move forward with its forfeiture, the government decided to return all of Etienne’s money to him — eight months after it helped itself to his cash at an airport checkpoint.
Unlike the Warren case, the government wasn’t able to talk Etienne into not suing the government over this bullshit forfeiture. The government tried to escape from that, too, but — for once — the attempt to dodge a civil rights lawsuit failed. DEA Agent LoGrande argued he should be immunized from the suit by qualified immunity, but federal judge Frederic Block wasn’t willing to entertain the government’s specious rationalizing.
According to Corbett, Block “made it clear that he did not like the government’s position at all” and “basically told the government that they really want to consider settling.” Through mediation, the government agreed in August to pay Etienne an additional $15,000, a bit more than the $13,749 in “legal fees and costs” that the lawsuit said he “spent defending against the abusive process instituted against him.”
With two failures in one week, you’d hope the government might be slightly deterred from seizing people’s cash just because they tried to board a plane while carrying it. But it’s likely this will have no effect at all. First off, the government is taking money that belongs to citizens and, at best, occasionally returning the same amount it seized. The percentage of cases that end with the government shelling out for legal fees is probably less than a rounding error. And even when the government is forced to pay for screwing over US citizens, it’s US citizens who end up picking up the tab.
At no point is the government playing with its own money, so without intercession from Congress or court precedent finding forfeitures completely unmoored from criminal charges unconstitutional, the TSA and DEA will engage in business as usual. And that “business” does nothing to make travelers more secure or curtail the buying and selling of illicit drugs.