A retired Pennsylvania man and his daughter claim in a proposed class action lawsuit that their Constitutional rights were violated when the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized over $82,000 of their life savings at the Pittsburgh International Airport.
According to the 52-page case out of Pennsylvania federal court, the daughter was transporting the cash, which had previously been stored in various envelopes hidden throughout her 79-year-old father’s apartment, back to her home in Massachusetts to be deposited into a new joint bank account. The plaintiffs say a portion of the funds were earmarked for the man’s health care and repairs to his truck, among other immediate needs. The complaint explains that the father came from a coal mining community near Pittsburgh and had adopted his parents’ habit of storing portions of his retirement payments from his railroad job in envelopes hidden throughout his home. The suit goes on to say that when the man’s daughter was visiting, the father gave her power of attorney and entrusted her with depositing the $82,373 into a bank account when she returned to Massachusetts, as the banks had already closed by the time the decision was made.
The daughter says she arrived at Pittsburgh International Airport early on August 26, 2019 with the cash stored in a purse in her carry-on luggage. At a security checkpoint, she was stopped by TSA agents, who noticed from an X-ray of her luggage that she was carrying a “large” amount of cash, the case says. The woman states that after the security screening had concluded and the TSA had determined that she was not carrying any items that could threaten airport security, she and her belongings were detained by the TSA while agents questioned her about the cash, the amount of which the case points out is legal to carry on domestic flights. The woman was then questioned by a Pennsylvania state trooper and his supervisor, the lawsuit says, after which she was permitted to go to her gate.
At the gate, the same state trooper and a DEA agent approached the plaintiff, the suit continues, and she continued to be “honest and forthcoming” in her explanation of why she was carrying the cash. The case claims that after continuing to question the daughter and calling her father—who, due to age-related cognitive issues, was “groggy, confused, and upset” upon being awoken by the call—the DEA agent determined that the plaintiffs’ answers didn’t “match” and seized the cash “without probable cause.”
According to the lawsuit, the plaintiff was allowed to board her flight to Boston after the final exchange with authorities and felt “deeply embarrassed by her fellow passengers and other onlookers” observing the encounter. The case describes the scenario as painting the plaintiff as though “she had done something wrong or illegal.”
The lawsuit argues that the TSA and DEA have policies or practices of seizing cash at airports “without reasonable suspicion or probable cause” and based solely on whether the amount of cash exceeds a set threshold. According to the case, the TSA had no authority to detain the plaintiff after determining that she was not a threat to airport security, as TSA screening agents are not law-enforcement officers and are not permitted to investigate potential crimes. Despite the lack of authority, the TSA, the suit argues, held the plaintiff and her belongings simply because of the amount of cash she was carrying. From the complaint:
“In contravention of this limited authority and duties, upon information and belief, TSA Screeners follow a 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.”
The lawsuit additionally challenges the DEA’s alleged policy of seizing currency from air travelers when the amount they’re carrying exceeds $5,000, regardless of whether the agency has “probable cause” to do so, which the suit alleges violates the Fourth Amendment. Moreover, the case claims the DEA frequently initiates civil forfeiture of such property under the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act (CAFRA). The plaintiffs claim that since their money has not been returned as of the date the lawsuit was filed, they’ve been deprived of the funds they need to pay for the father’s necessary dental work and truck repairs, among other urgent expenses. Neither plaintiff has been arrested or charged with any crime in relation to the seized cash, the suit says.
The case, which also names as defendants the two agencies’ respective administrators, an individual DEA officer, and the United States of America, seeks to cover the following two proposed classes:
“All air travelers who, from January 15, 2014, until the present, either had or will have their currency seized by DEA at a U.S. airport because they were or are traveling with at least $5,000 in currency, pursuant to DEA’s policy or practice of making such seizures regardless of whether there is probable cause for the seizure.”
“All air travelers who, from January 15, 2014, until the present, either have had or will have their currency, carry-on luggage, personal effects, and/or person seized by TSA Screeners at transportation security screening checkpoints—based on the presence of a ‘large’ amount of currency on their person or in their carry-on luggage—after the transportation security screening has concluded.”