Every dollar Terry Rolin had saved over a lifetime was stacked in a large Tupperware container: $82,373. At 79, he was aging and worried about keeping so much cash on hand, his daughter said, so during one of her visits he asked her to open a joint bank account.
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.
“He just handed me the phone and said, ‘Your stories don’t match,’ ” Brown recalled the agent saying. ” ‘We’re seizing the cash.’ “
Brown said she was never told she or her father were under suspicion of committing any crime and neither has been charged with anything. A search of her bag turned up no drugs or other contraband. Neither she or her father appear to have criminal records that might raise suspicions.
Brown and Rolin filed a federal, class-action lawsuit Wednesday against the DEA, Transportation Security Administration and agency officials, claiming the agencies violate the Constitution’s ban on unlawful search and seizures by taking cash from travelers without probable cause. The lawsuit claims the only criteria the DEA has for seizing cash is if it finds amounts greater than $5,000.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Pennsylvania, seeks the return of Rolin’s money and an injunction against the practice.
Both the DEA and TSA declined to comment on the lawsuit’s allegations.
“We can’t comment on ongoing litigation,” said Katherine Pfaff, a DEA spokeswoman.
“As a matter of policy, TSA does not comment on pending litigation,” TSA spokeswoman Jenny Burke wrote in an email.
Brown said the loss of the savings has prevented Rolin from getting treatment for painful tooth decay and gum disease and kept the family from fixing up his pick-up truck, which is his only means of transportation. Rolin is living on retirement benefits from a job as a railroad engineer.
Brown said her grandparents kept their savings in cash because they lived through the bank runs of the Great Depression, and her father adopted the habit.
“I get they are trying to quash drug distribution, but this is a blatant overreach,” Brown said. “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.”
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.
“This is something that we know is happening all across the United States,” Alban said. “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 DEA made more than 8,850 seizures worth $539 million in 2017, according to the latest agency statistics for a full year. A 2016 USA Today investigation found DEA agents seized at least $209 million in cash from travelers at the nation’s 15 busiest airports over the previous decade.
Federal law gives the DEA and other law enforcement agencies power to seize cash and property linked to drug and criminal activity, a process known as civil asset forfeiture.
The agencies say it is an important tool to undermine the financial viability of criminal networks, deprive organizations of illicit proceeds and confiscate property like cars and houses that might be used to carry out or harbor crime.
But the practice has come under increased scrutiny in recent years. Critics argue local police departments and federal agencies have used asset forfeiture as a cash cow to fatten budgets. In the DEA’s case, the agency feeds seized assets into a Justice Department fund that disburses the money to agencies and victims of crime.
A 2017 review by the Justice Department inspector general found only 44 of 100 seizures by the DEA were related to an ongoing investigation or resulted in a new investigation, arrest or prosecution. Most of the seizures occurred at transportation facilities like airports or bus stations.
The Supreme Court limited the power of local state agencies to seize property in an important ruling last year.
Brown said she initially encountered issues when going through the TSA security checkpoint at Pittsburgh International Airport on Aug. 26. Brown was flying to Boston, where she lives outside the city.
A TSA screener noticed the cash in Brown’s carry-on during a scan and pulled her aside for questioning, Brown said. The screener asked what the money was for, photocopied her ID and travel documents and held her luggage until a Pennsylvania state trooper arrived. The lawsuit claims the TSA exceeded its authority in holding Brown’s bag.
Brown said she repeated the explanation that the money was her father’s life savings to the trooper and then retold it to his superior.
Finally, she said she was allowed to proceed to the gate, where she was met by the DEA agent.
Brown said it was humiliating to be questioned by the agent in front of other travelers at the gate. When he seized the money, she said he put it into a plastic bag and told her someone would be in touch with her.
Brown said she stumbled onto her flight in shock as the doors were closing. She didn’t have time to fully explain to her father what had happened before takeoff, and he left seven frantic messages while they were in flight. In October, she received a notice that the DEA planned to permanently seize the cash, citing its authority to make such moves to combat crime.
“I was shaking the entire time,” Brown said of the flight. “I was embarrassed. I was afraid.”
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The Washington Post’s Alice Crites contributed to this report.