Lawsuit: DEA seizes father’s life savings at airport without alleging any crime

A woman who was attempting to transport over $82,000 of her father’s life savings on an airplane had the cash seized by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) without any crime being alleged, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday.

The Washington Post reports that the cash belonged to 79-year-old Terry Rolin, who saved it up over his lifetime. His daughter, Rebecca Brown, told reporters that he was aging and worried about keeping so much cash on hand, so he asked her during one of her visits to open a joint bank account. Brown said was catching a flight home from Pittsburgh to Boston the next day and didn’t have time to stop at a bank, so she planned to bring the money in her carry-on.

The incident occurred at the Pittsburgh International Airport on Aug. 26.

Brown said that while she was going through a security checkpoint, the cash showed up on a security scan and she was questioned by agents with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). After explaining that the money was her father’s life savings, she was allowed to proceed to the gate.

At the gate, Brown was confronted by a DEA agent who subjected her to additional questioning before insisting that she put her father on the phone to confirm the story. Brown said that her father, who suffers mental decline, was unable to verify some details.

“He just handed me the phone and said, ‘Your stories don’t match,’” Brown told the Post. ”‘We’re seizing the cash.’“

Once on the plane, Brown said she frantically called her father and left seven messages trying to explain what happened.

The lawsuit says Brown was never told that her or her father were under suspicion of committing a crime--there is no limit to the amount of cash passengers on domestic flights in the US can carry. A search of her bag at the airport turned up no contraband. According to the Post, neither she or her father have criminal records.

In October, Brown received a notice that the DEA would permanently seize the cash, saying it would be used to combat crime.

The federal, class-action lawsuit was filed against the DEA, TSA and agency officials, claiming the agencies violate the Constitution’s ban on unlawful search and seizures by taking cash without probable cause. It seeks the return of Rolin’s money totaling $82,373 as well as an injunction against the practice.

“This is something that we know is happening all across the United States,” said Dan Alban, a senior attorney for the Institute of Justice, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Brown and Rolin. “We’ve been contacted by people who have been traveling to buy used cars or buy equipment for their business and had their cash seized.”

The practice is known as civil asset forfeiture, in which law enforcement agencies have the power to seize cash and property that they assert has been involved in criminal activity. The owner of the property doesn’t even need to be found guilty of a crime for their property to be seized.

According to the Post, The DEA made more than 8,850 seizures worth $539 million in 2017.

Both the DEA and TSA declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Brown explained to reporters that her grandparents kept their savings in cash because they lived through the bankruns of the Great Depression, and her father picked up the habit.

Brown said that her father’s loss of savings has prevented him from getting treatment for tooth decay and gum disease, and prevented the family from fixing his pickup truck, which is his only means of transportation.

“I get they are trying to quash drug distribution, but this is a blatant overreach,” Brown told the Post. “This is a working person, a taxpaying citizen of the United States trying to take care of her elderly parent, and they took the money.”

About the Author:

Brian is an Associate Producer for ClickOnDetroit. He graduated from the University of Michigan-Dearborn with a degree in Journalism and Screen Studies.