CHARLOTTE (FOX 46 CHARLOTTE) — It was just before seven in the morning when Cody James wiggled out from under his backpack and plopped it down onto the conveyor belt to be scanned. That backpack was likely the most expensive one rolling through the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport that July morning.
It contained $27,600, cash.
James had checked flight rules before he took off and found no rule or law banning passengers from carrying large amounts of cash on domestic flights. Probably because, as we’ll detail later, there is no law against it.
He’d watched a Transportation Security Administration officer use the X-Ray monitor to zoom in on the cash he had bundled inside, but said the screener said nothing to him about it and never opened to bag to ask about it.
What he didn’t know was the TSA was in the process of flagging a federal law enforcement officer to track him down inside the terminal.
The TSA officers waved James through, he put his shoes back on, slung his backpack onto his back and soldiered off toward terminal A to spend the next 45 minutes waiting on his boarding call for his flight to Oregon.
His first stop: the terminal bar for a cold beer to ease the nerves of his cross-country flight. James works night shift, so a 7 a.m. beer to him is a 5 p.m. beer to someone else.
With only minutes before boarding, James said he was sitting in a chair drinking his beer and chatting with another passenger. James noticed two officers heading his way.
One of the officers walked up and stood over him with his hand clutched to a dog’s leash.
“And he said, ‘My dog hit your bag,’ which his dog hadn’t even been between my legs at this time and my bag’s in between my legs,” James told FOX 46 Chief Investigator Jody Barr the day after his airport encounter with federal agents.
James said the officer was dressed in all black and he couldn’t figure out what government agency the officer worked for. He didn’t remember seeing the officer or dog until that moment and said it wasn’t the same officer or dog he passed before the security checkpoint nearly an hour earlier.
“Then he said, ‘Do you mind if my dog searches your bag, it’s a narcotics dog.’ I said, I don’t mind, I don’t have any narcotics. So, I handed my bag to him and he tossed it on the ground, and he was hollering at his dog and then he said, here…just like that, pointing at my bag,” James recalled.
“He said, ‘Do you mind if I search; I’m going to search your bag, you mind if I search it for narcotics,’ and I said, ‘I don’t mind, I ain’t got no narcotics.’ He searched my bag, found the money and he asked me to step to the side and he got me up out of my chair and walked me to the other side of the airport,” James said.
Cody James said his encounter with DHS agents happened off to the right of this Charlotte-Douglas International Airport surveillance camera in Terminal A on July 16, 2021. We filed a records request for access to the video recordings that morning, but none of the recordings the city provided ever show James or the two officers who seized his cash. The city claims the videos match the date and time requested in our records request. (Source: CLT)
“He started taking all my money out of the bag and asking me how much it was, what it’s for, where I’m going—just asking me all kind of questions and no matter what I said I knew it wasn’t going to work, because he just kept asking me more and more and more and more and I had two different officers asking me these questions,” James said.
James said he felt the questions weren’t any of the officer’s “damn business.” James said one of the officers asked him why he was drinking a beer at 7 a.m.
“Why are you selling beer at 7 a.m.,” James snapped back. He had lost his patience with the officers’ questions and what he felt was an invasion of his property and freedom to travel. “I hadn’t done anything wrong, wasn’t doing anything wrong, so yeah I was highly pissed off,” James said.
James had been back home to Rutherford County for about a week. He was on the last days of an extended vacation from his packaging job in Houston, Texas where he’d saved his vacation days to take all at once, he said. He’d spent the past few weeks “road tripping” with his children from Texas to South Carolina and attending a divorce court hearing in South Carolina and meetings with his divorce attorney.
James said he was making a quick trip to fly to Oregon that Friday morning and return to North Carolina on Sunday.
“I was headed to Oregon to visit a friend from home I’d grown up with. It was a one-day trip before I headed back home to Texas on the last weekend of my vacation. We were going to visit a casino and I was looking at possibly buying a truck I saw for sale up there,” James explained to FOX 46.
Cody James demonstrated how he handed his bag to two Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officers working as federal agents inside the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport during a Civil Asset Forfeiture seizure on July 16, 2021. (WJZY Photo/Jody Barr)
James said he had the cash bank banded together in separate stacks. The officers took all the cash from the bag and placed it into a clear plastic evidence bag. At one point, James said the officers wanted him to sign a form, forfeiting the money to the government in order to avoid a federal investigation.
“I wasn’t about to sign my money over…I didn’t do anything wrong,” James said.
The officers gave James his bag back but took the cash and left through a locked door inside the terminal and disappeared, “He just took my money and then 5 to 10 minutes later, he’s gone. I can’t find anyone and the only thing anybody’s telling me is to call that number.”
The officers handed James a Department of Homeland Security form titled, ‘Custody Receipt for Seized Property and Evidence.” The form lists James’ name, the date and time of the seizure and lists the property seized as “US Currency,” but the form does not list an amount.
James said the officers did not count the cash when they seized it.
The form also appears to list the officer who seized it as “TFO Bollinger,” but the officer’s signature doesn’t show clearly on the form. James was later able to track down a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officer inside the airport and was given the name and number of someone he could contact: “TFO Brown.”
James identified the person as Steve Brown.
We called the number, which rings to a voicemail inside the airport for a Steve Brown. The Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department confirmed Brown is a detective with the city. Brown is cross sworn as a Task Force Officer to help the federal government conduct cash seizures inside the city’s airport.
The agents who seized Cody James’ $27,600 inside the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport on July 16, 2021 handed him this evidence form. The form does not list the currency amount seized or the agency responsible for seizing his cash. (WJXY Photo/Jody Barr)
“It was $27,600,” James said in the interview with FOX 46. “And why were you traveling with that,” Barr asked, “I was traveling with that money because I’m going through a divorce and I have a lot of court costs and stuff to pay and I can’t leave my money in my bank account now because my wife’s been taking my money out of it,” James replied.
James claimed he earns an annual salary of $90,000 from his packaging plant job near Houston. We confirmed this by inspecting James’ latest W2 form and electronic wage statements. James said instead of depositing his pay into his bank account he cashes the checks and locks it away at home. The money inside his backpack were his savings and wages earned that he took with him on his visit to NC, he said.
James left the airport and drove back to his mother’s home in Rutherford County that morning. At the time he still had no idea who’d taken his cash—or why.
‘PROCEEDS TRACEABLE TO CONTROLLED SUBSTANCES’
Keisha Cole and her son Cody James were waiting in their driveway when we arrived on July 17; a little more than 24 hours after CMPD officers took $27,600 from James inside the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.
With nowhere else to turn, Cole contacted FOX 46 within hours of the seizure asking for us to investigate. The following day we met with James at his mother’s Rutherford County home to learn more about what happened.
“He asked me how old my son was, and I told him he was 29. But he’s never been in any trouble in his life and that we didn’t understand what this was, we didn’t know there was issues, so we don’t know what steps to take to get it back. He said he would not talk to me about the case at all that my son needed to stand on his own two feet,” Cole said recalling the phone call she had with TFO Brown following the seizure.
Cole said Brown wouldn’t tell her why they seized the money, but indicated it was because James was headed to a state with liberal marijuana laws, “He said that it appeared to be drug related because of where he’s going,” Cole told Barr.
“What, Oregon,” Barr asked, “Oregon, because he’s going to Oregon,” Cole said.
James’ criminal record shows a pending misdemeanor driving under the influence case out of Houston from March but shows no drug charges ever filed against him. James said he’s never had a drug charge and doesn’t take or deal drugs.
On August 3, James received a letter in the mail from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The letter was the first formal communication from the government since CMPD seized his cash on July 16. The four-page letter informed James the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement seized his money and included confirmation the amount of money in James’ backpack totaled $27,600.
“The property was seized and is subject to forfeiture under the provisions of: Proceeds of Unlawful Activity – Proceeds Traceable to Controlled Substances,” the letter stated. The letter offered no further detail as to the evidence the government gathered to make its determination.
The government took James’ cash under what’s known as civil asset forfeiture. It’s a judicial process where the government can take property without ever charging the person they’re taking the property from with a crime.
“Are you involved in any sort of drug trafficking or money laundering,” Barr asked. “I’ve never been involved in any kind of drug trafficking or money laundering. I work 60, 70 hours a week almost every week of my life the past 10 years,” James said.
“I had no narcotics on me, no narcotics at all and this is what I get,” James told FOX 46. James said he doesn’t use, buy or sell drugs and guaranteed a search of his phone, email, and personal life would prove this.
“Then what’s going on here,” Barr asked, “I have no idea. Robbery from the government,” James said.
SEIZURES TOP $2 BILLION
Cody James hired a Raleigh asset forfeiture attorney to help him with the legal process to file a formal claim for his money. The attorney’s fees could likely exceed the $27,600 James is fighting to get back as many of these legal fights with the government surpass 12 months.
James is not alone. Records obtained from the Department of Homeland Security’s Freedom of Information Act library show 30,670 cash seizures happened inside the nation’s airports between 2000 and 2016. The data was made public after the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm based in Washington DC, sued the government for the records in 2016.
DHS has not yet provided FOX 46 with seizures records for 2017 through 2021. Those records were requested through a FOIA request submitted to DHS on July 29.
The Institute for Justice published a report into civil asset forfeiture in July 2020 titled ‘Jetway Robbery?’ The report detailed DHS cash seizures at the nation’s airports. The report found civil asset forfeiture has allowed the government to turn the system into one that “punishes people without proving they have done anything wrong.”
“Federal law enforcement agencies are tasked with finding and punishing criminals. But these findings suggest DHS airport currency seizure and forfeiture practices put innocent Americans at risk,” the IJ report concluded.
Between 2000 and 2016, the government’s seized at least $1.8 billion from people in airports across the country. That total does not include the past five years of forfeiture data DHS has not yet produced in response to a FOX 46 FOIA request.
DHS records show government agents working inside airports in Charlotte, Raleigh, Wilmington and Greensboro seized $133 million from passengers between 2000 and 2016.
Agents seized $18 million from passengers inside South Carolina airports and another $109 million from passengers at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Some of the money seized in these totals include international flights where federal regulations require passengers to declare cash totaling more than $10,000. But for flights that never leave the borders of the United States, there is no regulation or law limiting the amount of cash someone can carry onto an airplane.
In 2020, the Institute for Justice filed a federal class action lawsuit against the TSA, Drug Enforcement Administration and the federal government over the “unlawful and unconstitutional” practices of cash seizures inside airports “without any indication of criminal activity,” Institute for Justice attorney Dan Alban wrote in the lawsuit.
Alban is asking the federal courts to end these seizures, at least for people who are never charged or convicted of crimes.
IT’S LEGAL TO FLY WITH CASH
Not a single federal agency involved in these cash seizures would agree to an interview. Neither DHS, ICE, the DEA, nor Customs and Border Protection would agree to be questioned about these seizures and why the government shouldn’t have to prove some level of criminality before taking property.
The only agency involved in these seizures to agree to interview was the TSA.
“If a wad of cash comes in or if it’s hidden on the inside of a bag, then we’re going to take a look at it that way and say, hey, this doesn’t quite look right. We’re going to call our law enforcement partners in,” TSA Spokesman Mark Howell told FOX 46.
TSA was the first government agency to spot the money inside James’ backpack in the Charlotte airport in July. Although the officers scanning James’ bag never mentioned the money to him, the TSA immediately notified CMPD officers, who are cross sworn as DHS task force officers, to intercept James at his terminal.
Although TSA officers running the screening checkpoints are not law enforcement officers, the agency has essentially worked as frontline watchdogs for federal law enforcement in civil asset forfeiture by spotting passengers with cash, then flagging those people for federal agents.
“So large amounts of cash, drugs, things like that we’re not necessarily looking for, but if we find them in the course of the screening operations, we’re going to contact law enforcement and then let them make the determination on if there’s something suspicious there or how they’re going to proceed,” Howell said.
We showed Howell TSA Rule 100.4 titled ‘Transportation Security Searches.’ The directive states “Traveling with large amounts of currency is not illegal,” for domestic flights. However, for international flights a passenger must declare currency amounts totaling $10,000 or more. The directive goes on to state the TSA’s purposes for screening “bulk currency” is to ensure it isn’t concealing explosives.
This Transportation Security Administration directive details a rule that states flying with bulk currency is not against the law. The same document also requires TSA officers to notify law enforcement if officers suspect they’ve discovered evidence of criminal activity.
The directive states “As a general matter, there should be no reason to ask questions of the passenger about currency.” However, the TSA’s policy gives officers discretion to determine whether the presence of cash “appears to be indicative of criminal activity,” which includes the “quantity, packaging, circumstances of discovery, or method by which the cash is carried, including concealment.”
Cody James said he simply had his cash in two bundles, secured by bank bands and dropped inside his backpack. He said he never once tried to conceal the money and knew the TSA would see it when his bag was scanned, anyway.
“It says here, TSA rule 100.4, is traveling with large amounts of currency is not illegal,” Barr asked TSA’s Mark Howell, “Yeah, it’s not, it’s not. And that’s why I said it’s allowed. But again, when it’s in the screening checkpoint, again, like I said, if there is a large amount of cash, or if the way that it’s packaged, it looks strange, then we’re going to contact law enforcement.”
Howell said TSA’s job is to prevent “dangerous” items that could “jeopardize” aircraft from getting onboard. Howell said the agency’s sole mission is to prevent another 9/11 style attack.
“Is the TSA looking at a bundle of cash as a potentially dangerous item to bring on board,” Barr asked Howell. “Whenever something looks suspicious or is illegal, they’re (law enforcement) contacted and brought in at that point,” Howell replied.
LET’S MAKE A DEAL
The first time Ramon Lyon got to see his interrogation video was sitting in his lawyer’s Raleigh law firm with our cameras rolling a few weeks ago. Lyon walked into the Raleigh-Durham International Airport in June 2020 with $115,413 in his carry-on.
He wouldn’t leave the airport with a dime of it.
Lyon leaned over a laptop to get a closer look at the video, “I’m like, I just got robbed, I can’t believe I just got robbed without a gun. I’ve been robbed before, but like, without no gun, like…it’s the nicest robbery ever,” Lyon said recalling his thoughts as a Raleigh airport officer told him he was taking his cash.
Lyon said he was flying to California to purchase $100,000 in fish tables from a supplier there. The tables are gaming devices Lyon said he planned to add to his gaming businesses in Raleigh. Airport surveillance video shows Lyon going through the TSA checkpoint, walking through the body scanner and a TSA officer patting his shoulders down.
A TSA agent pulled Ramon Lyon’s red bag off the screening belt inside the Raleigh-Durham International Airport on June 3, 2020 after another agent spotted bulk currency inside his bag. The TSA notified federal agents who later seized the $115,413 from inside his bag. (Source: RDU)
Meanwhile, a TSA officer running the scanner turns to another TSA officer nearby while Lyon’s bag is stopped inside the scanner. The second officer grabbed Lyon’s red carry-on bag off the conveyor belt and walked it to a table at the end of the screening area.
An airport officer soon joins Lyon and the TSA officer, and the video shows Lyon hand the airport officer his identification. Lyon eventually lands inside an airport interrogation room where airport surveillance cameras captured both audio and video of what happened inside.
The video shows an airport police officer and a TSA officer reaching into Lyon’s bag and picking up the cash inside. Both used cell phones to photograph the cash. About 90 minutes into the recording, Raleigh Police Department Officer Aaron Woodlief, who is identified as a detective by another officer inside the room, walked in.
Woodlief described himself as being “attached” to Homeland Security when it comes to cash seizure investigations. Lyon’s legal team said Woodlief is an airport officer cross sworn as a federal task force officer. Woodlief confirmed his work for Homeland Security in the video when he pulled his badge out to show it off to Lyon, “The TFOs get silver badges, we get cool guy gold badges. Task Force Officers, we’re duly sworn. It’s kind of crazy, we’ve got jurisdiction beyond our normal property when we need to,” Woodlief told Lyon in the recording.
Woodlief presented Lyon with what the agent called “options” related to his cash. Woodlief questioned Lyon about where he was going, what he planned to buy and why he didn’t have a hotel room booked or a return plane ticket.
Task Force Officer Aaron Woodlief worked for several minutes during this June 3, 2020 interview to detail how the U.S. Attorney’s Office would not investigate him if he agreed to sign a form forfeiting the $115,413 agents seized from him. (Source: RDU)
The interrogation room video shows Ramon Lyon using his phone to show Officer Aaron Woodlief the gaming machines he was flying to California to purchase for his business in Raleigh. (Source: RDU)
This surveillance video from inside a Raleigh-Durham International Airport interrogation room captured the encounter between Ramon Lyon and Officer Aaron Woodlief. The recording shows Woodlief making Lyon an offer to avoid a federal investigation if he agreed to surrender his money without a fight. (Source: RDU)
Lyon asked Woodlief if he’d done anything wrong by not having his trip more organized. “Nothing’s wrong with it, but I feel that it’s odd. I feel that it’s odd,” Woodlief told Lyon in the interrogation.
“I think there is probably some legitimacy here to your claims but based on some of these findings I’m going to seize your money under administrative seizure for Homeland Security. We’re going to give you about 60 days to come up with (inaudible) receipts and stuff (inaudible) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office will give you the chance to provide legitimacy for your money,” Woodlief told Lyon. “It’s just something, something—it feels like there’s something more here,” Woodlief said.
Woodlief then describes to Lyon the drug trafficking and money laundering investigation he planned to open into him. Despite the agent’s suspicion Lyon might be part of a larger criminal organization, the agent was willing to make Lyon a deal.
“There is an option to avoid all that, not to sound like a used car salesman but to give you all your options,” Woodlief told Lyon in the recording, “We do have abandonment forms here, as well, if you choose to forego the seizure of the phone and any investigation, you can walk away from that money.”
“I’m going to seize the money, but if you want to walk away from a federal investigation that’s linked to the money, those are your options. Just letting you know…you can think about that while I fill out your federal seizure form,” Woodlief said. “If we do a federal investigation, I will probably end up figuring out your favorite color, your favorite food, we’ll look at your bank account, that kind of investigation,” Woodlief said as Lyon shook his head.
The agent spends another several minutes describing how deep the feds plan to go with an investigation, but Lyon still had a chance to avoid it all if he agreed to sign the money over to Woodlief, “What you want to do, my man? If we go down that route, we’re going to put in over 40 hours, that’s what we do an entire background…” Woodlief said before Lyon interrupts, “Why you say it like that,” Lyon asked. “That’s what we do, that’s what we do,” Woodlief responded.
The agent told Lyon if he decided against forfeiting his cash, the investigation would also include Woodlief seizing both his cell phones and using what he called a “Cellbrite machine” that would allow investigators to break into Lyon’s cell phone even if he doesn’t provide the codes to unlock them.
Woodlief then mentions again that Lyon could avoid his phones being searched and “forego an investigation and walk away from it (cash)” if he’d sign the forfeiture forms Woodlief prepared.
“I’m dreading it because that’s drama for me,” Woodlief said referring to the search warrants he’d need to get for Lyons’ phones, “That’s a lot of court orders and now we do Zoom meetings with judges to get stuff done.”
Lyon told Woodlief he couldn’t hand over his phones. Woodlief, the recording shows, continued to press.
“I’ve been as forthcoming with you as we can and I’m glad to answer any other questions, but that’s where we are right now. If you sign this, nobody from the US Attorney’s Office will contact you and we won’t be, doing any type of, seeking any type of investigation. It ends when we both sign that,” Woodlief told Lyon.
“Once you sign that it’s done,” Woodlief said.
“Just used all the scare tactics, the threat of the federal investigation, I’m going to take your phones and do all that, but I told that man, I use my phones to run my business, like I’m giving you my phones and I’m going to lose out on my money that I make and my business, no. I told them I’d be back with my lawyer,” Lyon told FOX 46.
Lyon eventually signed the forfeiture form and walked out of the airport to call his attorney. Lyon is currently fighting through the federal court to get his money back.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. $115,413
In October 2020, Assistant United States Attorney Matthew Fesak filed a forfeiture complaint with the federal court in Raleigh. The case isn’t against Ramon Lyon. The defendant is listed as $115,413 in U.S. currency.
It’s the exact amount of money Woodlief seized from Lyon in June 2020.
“The defendant constitutes money furnished or intended to be furnished by any person in exchange for a controlled substance or listed chemical in violation of the Controlled Substances Act, proceeds traceable to such an exchange, and/or money used or intended to be used to facilitate a violation of the Controlled Substances Act,” Fesak wrote in the October complaint seeking to seize Lyon’s cash forever.
Lyon answered Fesak’s complaint by filing a claim for the cash in November 2020. Lyon was not charged with any crime related to the seizure then, and now 15 months later has still not been charged.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Raleigh included these photographs of the cash seized from Ramon Lyon on June 3, 2020 in a federal court filing seeking to prevent Lyon from ever getting the cash back.
“Did they accuse you of being tied to money laundering or drug trafficking,” Barr asked Lyon, “Yeah,” Lyon responded. “Did they prove it,” Barr asked, “No,” Lyon responded. “Are you being prosecuted,” Barr asked Lyon to which he responded, “No.”
“What’s going on here,” Barr asked. “I got robbed, they just robbed me. That’s what’s going on,” Lyon said.
DHS has not detailed any specific criminal act it believes Lyon committed or is involved in related to the cash seizure. In an Oct. 8, 2020 affidavit attached to the Lyon complaint, DHS Special Agent Tony Bell wrote that federal investigators “have initiated an investigation” into a California-to-the-Carolinas drug trafficking organization “and its members” for money laundering and conspiracy to traffic marijuana.
Bell’s affidavit does not indicate whether Lyon is a member of that crime ring nor does Bell state when federal investigators initiated the investigation. The affidavit also does not state whether the investigation started before Woodlief intercepted Lyon at the Raleigh airport.
The affidavit accuses Lyon of lying about the amount of money he had when he was initially stopped at the TSA screening checkpoint, lying to the initial officers about what he was using the money for, that an officer noticed “a strong odor of marijuana coming from the luggage,” and that Lyon had “artfully concealed” a bundle of vacuum sealed money under the liner of his carry-on bag.
Bell, relying on his “training and experience,” explained that “proceeds of illegal narcotics” are often vacuum sealed to hide the smell of drugs that might still be attached to the money.
The affidavit also detailed Lyon’s criminal record with Bell describing it as “extensive.” Bell wrote that Lyon had multiple felony drug trafficking and distribution convictions, assault with a deadly weapon, possession of a firearm by a felon with the last convictions happening in January 2011.
Lyon told FOX 46 he hasn’t been in trouble in the past decade since getting out of the drug world nearly 11 years ago, “I can’t get away from it, I can’t escape it, man. It follows me everywhere I go, and it’s been ten-plus years since I’ve been in trouble and it follows me and ain’t nothing I can do,” Lyon said.
“Once he saw that I had a record, it was open game; I was open game for him. He was like, ‘I’m about to have a field day with this guy,” Lyon said referring to Woodlief’s decision to seize his cash.
‘SEE CASH, SEIZE CASH’
“The policy basically is: if we see cash, we will seize it,” Institute for Justice attorney Dan Alban told FOX 46. Alban is recognized as a national expert in civil asset forfeiture defense. We traveled to his offices in Washington, DC to interview him in August.
Alban’s firm’s class action lawsuit against the government represents potentially thousands of people who’ve had their cash seized in airports – people the government has never charged with crimes.
“The vast majority of folks who’ve approached us, we’ve looked into their situation, and it’s not at all evident that these folks are criminals,” Alban said. “They don’t ever have to charge those folks with a crime. They don’t have to get a conviction in court, they can just accuse the person of having some involvement with drug activity, and they keep their cash forever.”
Our analysis of 16 years of DHS’s Seized Assets and Case Tracking System, known as SEACATS, airport seizure data shows these cases rarely turn into a criminal prosecution. Of the 55,935 SEACATS cases identified in the data, only 1,988 cases – just 3.5% – were labeled “judicial criminal” in the government’s records.
These agencies got the power to seize under the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act, according to Alban. The federal legislation expanded civil asset forfeiture and created what Alban called “a financial incentive” for law enforcement agencies by allowing them to keep every dollar seized through these civil seizures. The legislation was aimed at crippling organized crime rings by stripping them of the cash earned from their crimes.
The government has to only show it’s more likely the cash is connected to criminal activity than not under what’s known as the preponderance of the evidence standard in the nation’s civil courts.
“All the federal government has to do is put on a couple of law enforcement officers who say, ‘In my years of experience, this person fits the profile of a drug courier, we had a drug dog that alerted on their cash’ and that is often enough to overcome this very low burden of proof that it’s more likely than not that someone is traveling with cash that is somehow connected to illegal activity,” Alban said.
“Now, that’s absolutely outrageous. That’s not how things should work. The government should never be able to forfeit property from someone without convicting them of a crime. And that’s why we are trying to put an end to civil forfeiture,” Alban said.
William Pruden and Ramon Lyon review the interrogation interview video from the June 3, 2020 civil asset forfeiture seizure inside the Raleigh-Durham International Airport. (WJZY Photo/Jody Barr)
“In all of the cases that you’ve handled, where currency has been seized at an airport, how many of your cases resulted in a criminal prosecution,” Barr asked William Pruden, a forfeiture attorney in Raleigh who represents Lyon and Cody James. “None. Not none of my civil asset forfeiture cases, even outside of airport,” Pruden said.
Pruden watched the Lyon interrogation video and said he believed the officer was attempting to coerce Lyon into signing his money away by “threatening” a federal investigation. Pruden thinks the courts and Congress need to act to ensure truly innocent people aren’t getting snagged in this fight against crime.
“I’m not saying civil asset forfeiture, in general, doesn’t have; it does help take down cartels and criminals, but these airports seizures are just unique in the way that you’re scanning your money, or your money is getting x-rayed and your bag’s getting searched. You’re basically giving the government—you’re showing the TSA, hey, I’ve got all this money. Why would you do that if you were going to be using that money to fly to for some nefarious purpose?” Pruden asked.
Most people don’t fight to get their money back, according to Pruden, because the cost to fight the government quickly exceeds the amount of money taken in the first place.
Pruden thinks the investigative tactics Officer Aaron Woodlief displayed in the Lyon interrogation show the government’s primary interest in seizing cash has little to do with crime fighting, “It solves no crime. It’s a short answer, it doesn’t,” Pruden told FOX 46.
U.S. Representative Tim Walberg, a Michigan Republican, introduced the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act (FAIR Act) again in this session of Congress. The legislation could, among other things, end these seizures for people where the government can’t provide “clear and convincing evidence” they’re linked to crimes.
Walberg’s FAIR Act has garnered 19 coauthors, half of whom are Democrats.
We asked every federal agency performing these seizures for an interview. Not one would agree to schedule one with us. DHS’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement press office would not work to schedule an interview, but sent us a statement:
“Homeland Security Investigations conducts investigations into global criminal enterprises and terrorist networks that violate U.S. laws by utilizing the agency’s unique and expansive criminal and administrative authorities. Across the country and around the world, HSI operates initiatives to counter threats to public safety, including transnational gangs, weapons trafficking, cybercrimes, narcotics smuggling, human trafficking, child exploitation, and financial crimes. HSI conducts investigations of bulk currency smuggling under anti-money laundering statutes in Titles 18 and 31 of the U.S. Code. These investigations identify and disrupt money laundering activities that support transnational criminal organizations by targeting courier networks who utilize U.S. transportation systems, to include the commercial airline industry, to conceal and transport illicit proceeds both domestically and abroad.”
-Britney L. Walker, ICE Office of Public Affairs
Since each of these agencies fall under the executive branch, we asked the White House for a response. President Joe Biden, a U.S. senator at the time, was a coauthor on the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act, which expanded the government’s powers to seize cash in this way.
The Biden Administration would not agree to an interview to discuss its position on these seizures and the seemingly innocent people caught in crossfire of the federal government’s work to fight organized crime.
The FAIR Act is currently stalled in multiple U.S. House committees where it’s sat since April 26, 2021.