Jerry Johnson flew to Phoenix hoping to buy a big rig for his growing trucking company, but the next day he went home without a truck and without his money. Jerry wasn’t a victim of a criminal or con artist; instead, law enforcement seized his cash at the airport out of mere suspicion. He was never charged with a crime, but he could lose his $39,500 in savings to the government anyway. And Jerry isn’t alone in losing his money just because he wanted to fly with it.
Rebecca Brown had $82,000 taken from her in Pittsburgh. Stacy Jones’ $43,000 was taken in Wilmington. More than $58,000 was seized from Rustem Kazazi in Cleveland. Each of them was doing something completely legal: flying domestically with cash. But each of them lost their savings for months after law enforcement seized the money and then tried to take it through civil forfeiture. Only after their cases became public did the government give up and return the money.
If you look on the internet, you won’t find any warning from the government that flying with large amounts of cash is suspicious. Jerry, like others before him, checked online to see whether there was anything he needed to do before flying with his money. At the most, some websites warn that flyers should be prepared to tell Transportation Security Administration screeners why they are carrying the money. There’s no hint that those screeners routinely alert law enforcement when they see cash on their scanners.
When Jerry landed in Phoenix, he was confronted by officers at the baggage claim who asked him whether he was carrying drugs or money. Jerry said he was not carrying drugs but did have cash. He was taken into a back room and interrogated for an hour. The officers refused to hear anything about his trucking business or the auction he was headed to in Phoenix that had the exact model of Peterbilt truck he was looking for.
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Instead, the officers focused on Jerry’s old criminal record and circumstantial evidence like Jerry buying his ticket only a few days before flying. Jerry had served prison time for a drug charge in 2005 but turned his life around with his trucking company and has not had a run-in with the law in nearly a decade.
Eventually, the officers gave Jerry a choice: sign a form on-the-spot agreeing to hand over the money or be arrested. Alone and far from home, Jerry signed the form the officer had filled out. He was able to fly back to Charlotte the next day and, knowing that he had done nothing wrong, decided to fight for his money. But the deck is stacked against him. He hasn’t been charged with any crime. Instead, the government is trying to take his money through civil forfeiture. But civil forfeiture isn’t a criminal proceeding—it happens in civil court. Property owners don’t have the right to an attorney and often have to prove their own innocence to get the money back.
It’s also a legal process that leaves people without their money for a long time. Even in a best-case scenario, if law enforcement takes money at the airport, it will be half a year before it is returned. A Drug Enforcement Administration agent took Terry Rolin’s life savings from his daughter Rebecca Brown when she was flying from Pittsburgh to her home near Boston in August 2019. It was October before she received a notice that the government wanted to forfeit the more than $82,000. Rebecca’s story made headlines in January 2020, but she didn’t receive notice that the government would return the money until early March; it took a few more weeks before it was transferred.
In total, Terry Rolin waited nine months to get his money back. Rebecca noted that: “Without this money, my father was forced to put off necessary dental work—causing him serious pain for several months—and could not make critical repairs to his truck.”
Things have been hard for Jerry without his savings. Without a third semi-truck, Jerry has been putting more miles on the trucks he owns and delaying maintenance. He says, “We’re basically just making ends meet right now.”
Jerry has teamed up with IJ to appeal his case in Arizona. Meanwhile, Arizona lawmakers are considering civil forfeiture reforms which could have prevented law enforcement from taking Jerry’s money to begin with. The reforms would require a criminal conviction before forfeiting property, prevent the use of waivers (like the one Jerry was strong-armed into signing) and create a prompt hearing so that someone can get their property back without delay.
The practice of law enforcement cavalierly seizing cash from flyers needs to end and the only way to do that is to end civil forfeiture. No American should lose their property without being charged with a crime.