ATLANTA — If you’re flying with cash, police can take it without ever having to prove you did something wrong.
Channel 2 consumer investigator Justin Gray found out that it’s happening regularly at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and that it can be a long and expensive process to get that money back, even if you’re never charged with a crime.
Brian Moore Jr. was flying from Atlanta to Los Angeles to shoot a music video.
“I had about $8,500 on me,” Moore said.
Jerry Johnson was heading from Charlotte to Phoenix with cash to buy a truck at auction.
“It was $39,500,” Johnson said.
Both men’s trips were a waste because their cash was gone, seized by law enforcement.
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“There’s nothing different than being robbed. Somebody’s come up with a gun and take your money and then walk off,” Johnson said.
A DEA agent snapped a picture of Moore, who had green hair at the time, at the gate at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport heading to Los Angeles.
“They announced we were about to start boarding and I was approached by two women and one of them quickly flashed me a card,” Moore said.
He said they asked if he was carrying guns or drugs. He wasn’t. Then they asked about cash which he did have.
“I’ve never been in a situation to where I was being treated as a terrorist or a criminal or something less than a person,” Moore said.
He said he explained to the DEA agents the money was his to pay for his music video from the sale of his grandfather’s car he inherited.
“They put my money in a big Ziplock bag, and they told me I was free to go. They were like, ‘You might want to leave or you’re going to miss your flight,’” Moore said.
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A picture shows Moore’s money in the Ziplock bag.
The DEA kept it but never in the more than two years since have they mentioned a crime.
“Nobody ever charged you with a crime?” Gray asked Moore.
“I was never charged,” Moore said.
“You were never convicted of a crime?” Gray asked Moore.
“Never convicted,” Moore said.
“But they took your money?” Gray asked.
“They took my money,” Moore said.
“And did not give it back?” Gray asked.
“Did not give it back,” Moore said.
It happens every day at airports across the country, including in Atlanta.
“They don’t want to prosecute the person. They just want their money,” said Dan Alban, an attorney at the Institute for Justice.
He fought in courts for years to get open records data from Homeland Security on seizures.
That data shows that at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport just one agency, Customs and Border Protection, seized more than $108 million in cash from travelers between 2000 and 2016.
“These law enforcement agencies get to keep the money that they seize. And they view these seizures as a source of revenue,” Alban said.
Johnson said he never heard from law enforcement again after they walked off with his $39,000 in cash.
“Nobody ever contacted me. Nobody asked me any questions. I never heard nothing from them after they seized my money,” Johnson said.
That is typical according to the government’s own studies.
A 2017 Department of Justice Inspector General audit looked at a sample of 100 DEA seizures and found only 44 of those advanced or were even related to a criminal investigation.
The same year, a Treasury Inspector General found 91% of the money seized in cases it looked at was from a legal source.
“People should be free to travel with their own money,” Alban said.
Moore sued to get his money back. It took over two years and he won the case, but legal fees ate up most of his money by the time it was finally over.
“After about an almost two-year process, I got back a little under $3,000,” Moore said.
The DEA refused Gray’s requests for an interview or even to provide a written comment, directing him to a page on their website that says DEA “…uses forfeiture to attack the financial structure of drug trafficking and money laundering groups worldwide.”
Moore is a military veteran and musician. Nobody ever provided any evidence about trafficking money or drugs.
“I thought I would at least find out what I did wrong. And you know, to this day I still haven’t found out what was suspicious about me or what I did that was suspicious,” Moore said.
Moore is now suing the federal government again to try to get his legal fees repaid.
Johnson also sued and eventually got all his money back.
There also is a class action lawsuit underway against the DEA and TSA for seizures of cash at airports without a warrant.
Congress has introduced a bipartisan bill called The Fair Act. It would end administrative forfeiture meaning every forfeiture case would have to go to court. It also would end the profit incentive for these agencies.
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