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Flying with Cash? Think Twice

In 2010, I was routinely flying from Port-au-Prince to Miami or Fort Lauderdale several times a month. A major earthquake had struck the capital city of Haiti and our humanitarian response there was under extreme pressure to make miracles happen.

Our fledgling communications team worked off of dial-up speed Internet shared with volunteers who were accustomed to advanced WiFi connections. One of the many miracles – in the midst of organizing major surgery schedules, importing, trading and buying medicines; piecing together makeshift clinics, ERs and pharmacies – I was constantly asked to perform was to “make the WiFi work.”

I begrudgingly drove to the AccessHaiti office in Petion-Ville several times a week over the course of a month to beg their exhausted employees to reboot our connection, trade out our equipment for something “pi bon” (better quality) or demand that someone come personally to fix the issue at our office and house. I don’t know what I was thinking at the time; every visit proved completely fruitless. I heard from other responders that some organizations brought in satellite technology from the Dominican Republic or Miami. I poked around on the Internet in the middle of the night when no one else was connected (Attention! The WiFi works at 3 a.m.!) and made a list of necessary equipment. I convinced the country director to let me start importing anything that could and would fit into a suitcase on my trips back and forth. The equipment wasn’t inexpensive. I would order it on my credit card, ship it to my address in the U.S. and take the equivalent of cash with me to deposit at an ATM stateside to reimburse my expenses.

On one particular ill-fated trip from Port-au-Prince to Fort Lauderdale, I felt the eyes of surveillance on me more than usual – in baggage claim, in customs and immigration, at the security re-check point and at the only sit-down restaurant inside of the security perimeter. Sure enough, I was pulled aside as I walked from Chilis to the gate for my connection. Two DEA agents who identified themselves only by last names knew everything about me. They questioned me, went through my carry-on and shoulder bag and generally tried to shake me up. My familiarity with carrying large sums of cash over international borders could be summed up in one question on the standard immigration form: Are you carrying over $10,000 in cash today? Check Yes or No. I had checked No – and it was the truth. I had been careful to bring in less than $10,000 in cash during any one trip.

The DEA agents counted my cash in front of me and seemed mildly disappointed it was slightly less than allowed. I was indignant about my rights and allowances. The agents switched gears and questioned me about drug trafficking in Haiti, but lost interest when I didn’t recognize the names they were throwing out. After that trip, I placed envelopes of cash more selectively in my personal bags – a little here, a little there. Imagine my surprise 11 years later, when I saw the headline, “Flying with Cash? You Could Lose It All.” The memory from FLL, long-since filed to the unimportant section of my brain-archives, came flooding back. I’m no expert on the matter, internationally or domestically, but Andrew Wimer, Assistant Communications Director at the Institute for Justice (IJ), is. He tracks cases of government-seized cash and recently wrote the following, which he has graciously shared with Polo Lifestyles.

Flying with Cash? by Andrew Wimer

You Could Lose it All

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.

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.

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.


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