But only a few minutes before departure at the end of August, a drug control administration agent met her at the busy door and asked about the cash, which appeared in a security scan. He insisted that Brown put Rolin on the phone to confirm his story. Brown said Rolin, who suffers a mental impairment, could not verify some details.
“He just handed me the phone and said,” Your stories don’t match, “Brown recalls the agent said. “We are keeping the cash.” “
Brown said she was never told that she or her father was suspected of committing any crime and that neither of them had been charged with anything. A search in his bag did not throw drugs or other contraband. Neither she nor her father seems to have a criminal record that can generate suspicion.
Brown and Rolin filed a federal class action lawsuit on Wednesday against the DEA, the Transportation Security Administration and agency officials, alleging that the agencies violate the ban on the Constitution of illegal searches and seizures when taking cash from travelers without cause probable. The lawsuit states that the only criteria the DEA has for seizing cash is if it finds amounts greater than $ 5,000.
The lawsuit, filed in a federal court in Pennsylvania, seeks the return of Rolin’s money and a court order against the practice.
Both the DEA and the TSA declined to comment on the allegations of the lawsuit.
“We cannot comment on ongoing litigation,” said Katherine Pfaff, a spokeswoman for the DEA.
“As a matter of policy, the TSA does not comment on pending litigation,” TSA spokeswoman Jenny L. Burke wrote in an email.
Brown said the loss of savings has prevented Rolin from receiving treatment for tooth decay and gum disease and prevented the family from fixing his truck, which is his only means of transportation. Rolin lives off the retirement benefits of a job as a railway engineer.
Brown said his grandparents kept their savings in cash because they lived through the bank runs of the Great Depression, and his father adopted the habit.
“I understand that they are trying to cancel the distribution of drugs, but this is an obvious overreach,” Brown said. “This is a hardworking person, a citizen who pays taxes from the United States who tries to take care of her elderly father, and they took the money.”
Dan Alban, principal attorney for the Virginia-based Justice Institute, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Brown and Rolin, said the family’s story is not unique.
“This is something we know is happening throughout the United States,” said Alban. “People who have been traveling to buy used cars or buy equipment for their businesses have contacted us and their cash was seized.”
Federal law gives the DEA and other law enforcement agencies the power to seize cash and property linked to drugs and criminal activity, a process known as seizure of civil assets.
The agencies say it is an important tool to undermine the financial viability of criminal networks, deprive organizations of illicit profits and confiscate property such as cars and houses that could be used to carry out or harbor crimes.
But the practice has been subject to greater scrutiny in recent years. Critics argue that local police departments and federal agencies have used asset forfeiture as a cash cow to fatten budgets. In the case of the DEA, the agency feeds the assets seized in a Department of Justice fund that disburses the money to the agencies and victims of crime.
A 2017 review by the Department of Justice inspector general found that only 44 of the 100 seizures by the DEA were related to an ongoing investigation or resulted in a new investigation, arrest or prosecution. Most seizures occurred in transportation facilities such as airports or bus stations.
The Supreme Court limited the power of local state agencies to confiscate property in a major ruling last year.
Brown said he initially encountered problems passing through the TSA security checkpoint at Pittsburgh International Airport on August 26. Brown flew to Boston, where he lives outside the city.
A TSA inspector noticed the cash in Brown’s carry-on luggage during a scan and took it aside for questioning, Brown said. The investigator asked him what the money was for, photocopied his identification and travel documents and retained his luggage until an agent from the state of Pennsylvania arrived. The lawsuit claims that the TSA exceeded its authority by holding Brown’s bag.
Brown said he repeated the explanation that the money was his father’s lifetime savings for the soldier and then told his superior.
Finally, she said she was allowed to go to the door, where she was received by the DEA agent.
Brown said it was humiliating to be questioned by the agent in front of other travelers at the door. When he took the money, she said she put it in a plastic bag and told her that someone would be in contact with her.
Brown said he tripped over his flight in shock when the doors closed. He did not have time to fully explain to his father what had happened before takeoff, and he left seven frantic messages while they were in flight. In October, he received a notice that the DEA planned to permanently seize the cash, citing his authority to make such movements to fight crime.
“I was shaking all the time,” Brown said of the flight. “I was ashamed. I was afraid.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.