Today, the Institute for Justice (IJ) condemned the decision by Michigan lawmakers to undo reforms to the state’s civil forfeiture system under the guise of combatting “drug trafficking.” This new change will imperil the rights of air travelers to travel with cash, a completely legal and legitimate activity. 

Last Thursday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a bill into law which gets rid of the requirement that airport authorities obtain a conviction or guilty plea before using civil forfeiture to permanently take money from individuals traveling through Michigan airports, if they have more than $20,000 and police suspect the money was “related” to a drug offense. 

“Traveling with cash is not a crime. People regularly fly with large amounts of cash for a wide variety of completely legitimate reasons related to their business or personal finances,” said IJ Senior Attorney Dan Alban, the co-director of IJ’s National Initiative to End Forfeiture Abuse. “Allowing authorities to take air travelers’ cash without a criminal conviction, simply because they have a large sum of money, is a blatant violation of their rights. This will lead to innocent people losing their money and is a massive step in the wrong direction by Michigan lawmakers.”  

Throughout the country, people have been subjected to such forfeiture abuse simply because they’ve traveled through an airport with a sum of money that police found suspicious. IJ has fought back against such airport seizures. 

For example, in 2020, Jerry Johnson, the owner of a small trucking company in North Carolina, flew to Phoenix with $39,500 in cash to purchase a new semi-truck for his fleet at auction. When he landed, a detective questioned him about the cash and accused him of money laundering before seizing all of Jerry’s money. Last month, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled Jerry could contest this forfeiture in court and fight to get back what is rightly his. 

Terry Rolin, a retired railroad engineer from Pittsburgh who had always kept his life savings in cash, faced a similar fate. In August 2019, his family convinced him to deposit his savings in a bank so his daughter, Rebecca, could use it to help care for him. But as Rebecca was flying home to deposit more than $82,000 in a bank near where she lived, the money was wrongly seized by Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents at Pittsburgh’s airport. Six months later, after IJ sued, the DEA finally agreed to return all of Terry’s money. 

Stacy Jones joined Terry and Rebecca in their class action lawsuit against the DEA and Transportation Security Administration (TSA), after she had $43,000 taken by the DEA at Wilmington, North Carolina’s airport. Like Terry, the DEA eventually agreed to return all of the seized funds after Stacy joined IJ’s suit.   

None of these individuals were charged with any crime. 

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