If you were detained at an airport and had your luggage searched, it is likely that you are feeling stressed out and overwhelmed. A simple search can often result in currency seizure when the police allege that your money was related to an illegal narcotics transaction or other illegal activities.

If this situation sounds familiar, it is important to keep the following in mind:

  • Don’t panic, take a deep breath, and expect a long process.
  • Do not get drawn into long answers or discussions with law enforcement.
  • If you need to say anything, stick to the truth. Do not give any answers that are false, misleading, or completely implausible.
  • Consider terminating your conversation with police by saying: “Officer(s), respectfully, I do not discuss my personal or business matters with law enforcement unless my attorney is present.”
  • Do not consent to any searches of your belongings, especially the search of your cell phone that may contain narcotics-related content, such as text messages or photographs of marijuana plants.
  • Make sure you received a property receipt and contact information for the detaining officer(s).
  • Make absolutely sure law enforcement has your correct address – and that you or someone is monitoring incoming mail every day.
  • Talk to a knowledgeable and experienced asset forfeiture attorney. who as a matter of public service is willing and able to take the time to go over your specific situation and the asset forfeiture process without charge or any obligation to you.
  • Be calm, respectful, and polite throughout your encounter with the police. Insist on your rights firmly, yet politely.

If you find yourself in these circumstances, the first step is to take a deep breath and contact a knowledgeable and experienced civil asset forfeiture attorney who specializes in recovering seized property.  Find an attorney who is willing to take the time necessary to provide you with free and comprehensive advice of the asset forfeiture process and your unique situation. Our law firm has been handling asset forfeiture cases exclusively for the past fifteen (15) years, with over a thousand airport seizure cases on the books. While our offices are located in Beverly Hills, California, and Austin, Texas – we handle civil asset forfeiture cases across the entire United States, regardless of whether the matter is handled federally or by local or state authorities. 

We approach what we do in the spirit of public service and mission.  We take pride in making sure that if you contact us you will have a thorough understanding of the asset forfeiture process and of your options.  We find practical solutions for everyone who contacts us.  We provide assistance regardless of the value of the seized property and whether or not we are familiar with the location of where the seizure took place.  In cases where we are unable or unwilling to take on your case ourselves, we are happy to help you find the right attorney through our vast network of affiliated forfeiture lawyers. 

The overwhelming majority of the seizures that our attorneys have been involved in have been handled by federal law enforcement agencies. These include agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security/U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the United States Secret Service (USSS).

How Long Does The Airport Seizure Process Take?

If your cash/money was seized by law enforcement at an airport, prepare for a process that will take a significant amount of time – most likely several months. Once the police have taken your property, law enforcement will process the seizure through the asset forfeiture process.  A vast majority of asset forfeiture cases are handled federally even if the seizure itself was conducted by a local or state police department.  Whether your case is a federal or state/local case will impact how long the process will take.  While federal forfeiture law is the same throughout the United States regardless which federal agency is in charge of your case, different states have different forfeiture laws.  The process in some states might be faster than the federal process, slower in other states.  Some states have abolished civil asset forfeiture process altogether.[1]

In our firm’s experience, attempts at convincing the police to return the money quickly without the forfeiture process are rarely successful. Asset forfeiture is a clearly defined statutory scheme where the parties involved (including the police) do not have much discretion, as they are limited to clearly defined statutory deadlines and requirements. 

Even under the best circumstances where our firm is able to recover all of our client’s money, the process can still take several months. This includes from the time of the seizure to when the money is returned to the client.

How To Behave In An Airport Seizure Situation

If your money has been confiscated at an airport, we strongly advise against panic and the temptation to attempt to say anything to get the money back immediately. It is usually a bad idea to try to tell stories and engage in arguments, as this is more likely to hurt your case than to help you down the line. 

Once the police officers have made their decision that your money will be seized and taken through the forfeiture process, you are not likely to change this decision. Among the worst things you can do is to attempt to explain the source or intended purpose of your money that is untrue. Such behavior can be very detrimental to your ability to recover the money through the asset forfeiture process.  In general, the less said the better.

In the event that law enforcement has seized your cash at an airport, we advise against being drawn and participating in any lengthy discussions with the officers. Resist your temptation or sense of obligation to talk.  We strongly advise cutting any conversation short by simply stating something along the lines of: “Officer(s), respectfully, I have been advised to never discuss any of my personal or business matters with law enforcement unless my attorney is present.” 

This advice is based on years of experience and having reviewed thousands of police reports. Our firm knows that people rarely help themselves by discussing the facts of their case directly with law enforcement when they are being detained on suspicion of involvement with narcotics or other illegal activities.

We believe that talking with the police can be beneficial and appropriate, but only if done in the presence of or by your attorney. There is little upside to speaking to law enforcement on your own, and a great risk that you will make your case worse. Keep in mind that you are dealing with professionals highly skilled at eliciting information that helps them build a case against you. 

If you are carrying cash and are approached by police who intend to detain you for questioning, keep in mind that they already know you have cash on you. This is because the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) likely saw the money in your carry-on luggage while you were crossing the security check, or the money was located inside your checked luggage by cash sniffing dogs or x-ray machines.

When the police approach you, they will likely seize your cash and ask you questions to help their investigation and gather evidence against you. When approached and asked whether you are carrying cash, consider not discussing anything and not consenting to any searches.  We realize that you might be tempted to talk in a situation where there is a true explanation for a legitimate source of the cash which you are able to document with bank statements or receipts, for example.  Even in this kind of situation, we recommend you leave the task of talking to your attorney who will have a better sense of what information is helpful and how it should be presented.  

If you are going to discuss the cash, state the amount you are carrying truthfully and accurately. A lot of people are tempted to minimize or lower the amount in their possession. Misstating the amount of cash will not be helpful to you at all.

When you engage in discussions with the police, the police have the obligation to report their conversation with you in a police report.  When talking, you are taking on a risk that the officer writing the report will be biased, will not accurately report your statements, and that your statements will be used against you in the future. You are always running the risk that anything you say might be spun and interpreted against you.

In the worst-case scenario, there is a potential risk that the report will include made-up facts. While outright lying by the police might not occur often, it can and does occur from time to time. If the report contains false information, you will be stuck with “facts” that are stacked and rigged against you. Disproving something an officer had said in their report is extremely difficult, given that a judge or jury must choose between the words of a police report and yours.

When the police are involved in an emergency such as a robbery or attack, the police are your best friend. Alternatively, when they come to detain you in order to seize your money at an airport, they are not. They will take your money and spin the facts of the situation in order to make the best possible case against you. In most cases, you will be presumed guilty and compelled to prove your innocence.

Remember that you do not have any legal obligation to talk to the police. However, you do have the obligation not to provide any false information. People are often tempted to tell any kind of plausible story to the police, a story that can turn out to be false or difficult to substantiate.

Telling false stories is among the worst things you can do if detained in a cash seizure situation. Not only do you make your chances of getting your money back at a later time worse, but you might have also committed a crime by making false statements to law enforcement.

I Was Detained Right Outside The Gate Upon Arrival To My Destination Airport, Does This Mean I Have Been Under Some Special Investigation?

It is not uncommon for airport cash seizures to take place right outside the landing gate as you disembark from your plane, or at a baggage carousel at the airport of your destination. In such situations, it is certain that the police and TSA were already aware that you were carrying cash.

Most commonly, the currency will be spotted by the TSA in your carry-on while you cross the security gate before boarding or during the screening of your luggage before the flight. If the TSA discovers cash during the security check, but the police did not have the time or resources to detain you at the airport of your departure, it is very likely that you will be detained when you land.


Random vs. Non-Random Search And Seizure

The vast majority of airport seizures are random, meaning they are often not based on any credible or objective evidence of any wrongdoing. They take place because airports are special law enforcement zones where you are subject to search and where your 4th Amendment rights against unlawful search and seizure are effectively nonexistent.  Because random seizures often lack evidence against you and your money, a knowledgeable and experienced attorney should have a better chance of recovering your property. 

In contrast to airport searches, non-random searches and seizures are usually more difficult to defend because police evidence tends to be stronger in such cases.  A non-random search, such as a search of your house based on a search warrant, will be often preceded by an investigation which might involve unfavorable facts and confidential informants who are ready and willing to provide information against you.

Do the Police Need Any Kind of a Search Warrant To Search My Luggage?

Yes, law enforcement agencies technically need a search warrant to search your luggage.  However, this burden or requirement is very easy for the police to meet as the threshold level of probable cause the police must show to the magistrate issuing the warrant is very low.  Airports are special law enforcement zones and justifying a search warrant to open up your luggage, as opposed to obtaining a warrant to enter and search your house, is not very difficult.  A simple allegation that there is cash inside your luggage and/or that a dog has alerted to a scent of narcotics on or inside your luggage, will be sufficient to obtain a warrant.  Remember that when the police detains and approaches you with a request to search your luggage, they already know that there is cash inside.

People who are detained with currency in their luggage are often faced with a difficult choice of either consenting to the search or leaving the luggage with the police while they apply for the warrant.  While we generally recommend against consenting to searches, we realize this might be a difficult choice when it is virtually certain that the police will obtain the warrant and will get to search your belongings. 

The Police Took My Money At Oakland International Airport, What Do I Do?

Having handled dozens of searches and seizures of cash at the Oakland International Airport in the last fifteen (15) years, our firm understands that seizures at this airport are unique.

Most searches and seizures at this airport are conducted by the local Alameda County Sheriffs, rather than the DEA, CBP or any other federal law enforcement agency. These seizures are then referred to and prosecuted by the Alameda County District Attorney under the California asset forfeiture laws, which are significantly different from the federal forfeiture laws. 

If your money was confiscated at the Oakland International Airport, it is strongly recommended that you contact a knowledgeable forfeiture attorney with significant experience with California law, and at least some experience with the Alameda County DA. This is because the federal forfeiture process is very different from any local or state forfeiture process – and California is no exception. 

For example, in California state proceedings, the DA has up to one year to initiate legal proceedings against your property by mailing you a seizure notice letter. In other states, it is likely that local law authorities will serve you with a seizure notice immediately. In these cases, your time to respond will be extremely limited, sometimes as short as 15 days. 

By contrast, federal authorities must start the process by mailing you the official seizure notice, typically within 60 to 90 days after the seizure. You will then have approximately 30 days to respond by filing a claim or petition.[2]

Now That My Money Has Been Seized, When Will I Receive A Seizure/Forfeiture Notice Letter?

The single most important step after your money has been seized at an airport is to ensure that any seizure notice letters are sent to you at the correct address where either you or somebody you trust monitors incoming mail every day. The seizure notice letter will be necessary in order to initiate your claim or petition process. This letter will contain your case information and your response deadline.  Missing the notice and subsequently failing to respond timely before the deadline will most likely be fatal to your money recovery efforts.

The second most important step following a seizure is to ascertain what police agency is in charge of your case as it might not necessarily be obvious or apparent what that agency is.  In case of seizures by federal agencies such as the DEA, CBP or the U.S Postal Service, it is fairly certain that the seizing agency will be the same as the agency handling the forfeiture process. However, if your money was seized by a local or state agency it might take some before it is known who is handling the case.  This is because local or state agencies will often refer the matter out to one of the federal agencies or to a local or state prosecuting agency such as a district attorney’s office or a city or county prosecutor’s office.  Ascertaining who is handling your case as early as possible is absolutely critical. As discussed earlier, while the federal process is the same regardless of where the seizure took place, there are vast differences in law and procedure when it comes to state and local laws.  Some states might require you to file your claim or petition immediately.[3]  Some, like California, might take as long as year to initiate any legal proceedings against your money.  

As with all other aspects of the asset forfeiture process, there is no substitute for contacting a knowledgeable and experienced forfeiture attorney who can quickly assess your situation and help you avoid costly mistakes – such as potentially missing your notice letter.  A good forfeiture lawyer will not only take the time to walk you through the process, but will also send out a letter of legal representation on your behalf and will get on top of your case immediately.  A letter of representation will put a legal obligation upon the authorities to ensure that your attorney receives all notices and correspondence related to your case.  This step will give additional assurance and peace of mind that no notices or deadlines will be missed.  Seeking legal help and information immediately is crucial to your success.

My Money Was Seized At The Chicago Amtrak Union Station. Are Amtrak Seizures Different From Airport Seizures?

From the point of view of process and procedure, Amtrak seizures are identical to seizures occurring at airports.  In our experience, most Amtrak seizures take place at the Chicago Amtrak Union Station.  No other Amtrak station in the country comes remotely close to the number of seizures that occur in Chicago. 

In all of the Chicago seizure cases our firm has handled (whether at an airport or Amtrak station), legal proceedings have been handled by federal law enforcement agencies, mostly by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

What If My Money Was Taken At A Different Airport, Can You Help?

Yes, our firm handles forfeiture cases initiated in all airports across the United States.  We represent or assist clients regardless where the seizure took place or whether the case is being handled by federal or state and local law enforcement. If for some reason we cannot or are not interested in your case, our office has a mission of providing comprehensive advice and a plan of action for anybody who contacts our office.  

While we have handled cash and property seizures in all airports across the United States, some of the notable airports we are very familiar with include:

  • Los Angeles International Airport
  • San Francisco International Airport
  • Dallas Fort Worth International Airport
  • Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Arlington, VA
  • Dulles International Airport
  • Oakland International Airport
  • Long Beach Airport
  • Harry Reid Las Vegas International Airport
  • Reno-Tahoe International Airport
  • Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, Ohio
  • Louis Lambert International Airport, St. Louis, Missouri
  • Kansas City International Airport
  • John F. Kennedy International Airport, Jamaica, Queens, New York
  • LaGuardia Airport, Queens, New York
  • Hartsfield – Jackson Atlanta International Airport
  • Chicago O’Hare International Airport
  • Chicago Midway International Airport
  • Boston Logan International Airport
  • Miami International Airport
  • Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport

A vast amount of airport searches and seizures are handled by federal police agencies.  However, over the years, attorneys from our law firm have handled numerous airport seizures that were handled by local or state police in airports across the United States.  We have been directly involved in state and local seizures at numerous locations, including:

  • Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, and other airports in Maricopa County, Arizona (Phoenix Police Department),
  • Los Angeles Airport ( Los Angeles Police Department),
  • Oakland International Airport (California Alameda County Sheriffs),
  • And more…

Now That My Money Has Been Taken, Am I At Risk Of Criminal Prosecution?

While we cannot give you any promises or guarantees, in our experience, seizures of cash at U.S. Airports very rarely lead to criminal prosecution. This is largely due to the fact that airport seizures are random and do not involve significant incriminating evidence, as described above. 

Most of the time, the objective and credible evidence is limited to the cash in luggage.  Carrying cash, regardless of the amount, is not a crime in and of itself. In airport seizure situations, law enforcement rarely has evidence that would be sufficient for criminal prosecution. 

Law enforcement and prosecution have a much higher “burden of proof” in criminal actions than in civil cases. In criminal proceedings, the prosecution must prove each element of a crime beyond reasonable doubt standard. In contrast, civil actions involve a significantly lower burden of proof, known as “proof by a preponderance of evidence.”

Isn’t Carrying Cash Legal? Is There A Limit To How Much Money I Am Allowed To Transport On A Plane?  Am I Legally Limited To Carrying Less Than $10,000?

In the United States, as of May 2023, there is no legal limit as to how much cash you can carry on a plane.  However, it is useful to keep in mind that just because it is legal for you to possess and carry cash or other types of personal property or assets, it does not mean that the police cannot lawfully seize it.  What is legal and what the police can legally do are two separate things.

The $10,000 cash limit is often the source of confusion.  The $10,000 limit is the limit on the amount of cash one can transport into or out of the United States while crossing the United States border without having to declare it to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).  While it is not necessarily unlawful to cross the border with a larger amount of cash, it is unlawful to do so without official declaration.  The $10,000 limit has nothing to do with what you can carry within the United States when you are not crossing the U.S. border.  There is no legal limit when carrying cash within the United States. However, as a practical matter, carrying significant amounts of U.S. currency, especially in and through special law enforcement zones like airports, can be a risky proposition.  Just because it is lawful for your to carry something, it does not mean that law enforcement cannot seize it on suspicion of some illegal activity.

In conclusion, the most important thing to do if you had your assets seized is to contact a knowledgeable and experienced asset forfeiture attorney.  We encourage you to contact team for a free and comprehensive consultation by calling (888) 571-5591 or texting us at (310) 710 – 2768.

[1] If a state has abolished civil asset forfeiture, that means that a seizure and forfeiture by a local or state agency in such a place state cannot take place in a separate civil proceeding which does not require a criminal conviction.  You can still lose your property through forfeiture if you are criminally convicted or if your case is federal.  As of May 1, 2023, four (4) states have abolished civil asset forfeiture:  New Mexico, Main, Nebraska and North Carolina.

[2] Choosing between a claim or petition is one of the most critical and consequential decisions to be made during the entire forfeiture process.  Our law firm uses petitions only in very specific limited situations.  It is paramount you discuss your situations with attorneys who understand the difference between petition and claim process very well.

[3] In certain states, it is not unusual for police to serve you with a seizure notice letter at the time of detention and seizure. They may do this without explaining to you what they are serving you with. Consequently, you might be in a situation where your deadline response time is ticking without you even being aware of it.  This is another reason why there is no substitute for contacting an experienced knowledgeable attorney without any delay.