In a little over 15 years, DHS agencies interacted with millions of travelers passing through our nation’s airports… and relieved them of over $2 billion in cash. (And that’s just agencies like the CBP and ICE. The DEA also lifts cash from airline passengers -- something it loves doing so much it hires TSA agents to look for money, rather than stuff that could threaten transportation security.)

That’s just one of several disturbing findings in the Institute for Justice’s (IJ) new report [PDF] on the DHS’s ability to separate travelers from their money. Utilizing the Treasury Department’s forfeiture database, the IJ discovered the DHS is a fan of taking cash and does so more frequently at certain airports. The most popular airport for cash seizures is, by far, Chicago’s O’Hare. In 2014, the airport accounted for 34% of all cash seized despite handling only 6% of all air travelers.

More travelers means more opportunities, which explains some of the increase in seizures over the past decade. But as the IJ points out, seizures are outpacing the bump in travel stats.

Between 2000 and 2016, the number of air travelers increased 46%, while the inflation-adjusted value of currency seized at airports by DHS agencies increased 140% and the number of airport currency seizure cases grew 178%.

Any international airport will be patrolled by CBP and ICE agents looking for cash to seize. And they’re not looking to catch drug dealers, human traffickers, or any other criminals that might be carrying cash around. No, the most common criminal activity to result in forfeitures is nothing more than a reporting violation.

Federal law requires travelers to declare any currency over $10,000 when traveling into or out of the country. It’s pretty easy to get this done when traveling into the US, as arriving visitors will be required to go through Customs and declare anything they’re bringing into the country, including cash. Outbound travelers may not realize this applies to them and since they’re not required to pass through Customs on the way out, they may have no idea they’re violating the law. That’s an opportunity DHS agencies are more than happy to capitalize on. Half of all seizures between 2000-2016 were for violating this reporting requirement.

In fact, serious criminal activity is something no one seizing money seems very concerned about. Asset forfeiture isn’t about dismantling criminal empires. It’s about taking cash from people who have limited means to fight back. If the government has all your cash, it’s pretty tough to hire a lawyer and fight an uphill battle against a system that dispenses with the property’s former owner completely to engage in litigation against the cash itself.

Overall, 69% of DHS agency airport currency seizure cases were not accompanied by an arrest, regardless of the alleged offense. This means less than a third of the time was an offense egregious enough, or the evidence strong enough, to warrant an arrest.

This isn’t just a DHS thing. It’s an everybody thing.

In 2017, the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General conducted an in-depth study of a sample of 100 Drug Enforcement Administration forfeiture cases. The study found that only 44 of those cases advanced or were even related to a criminal investigation. That same year, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration reviewed a sample of 278 cases in which currency was seized under “structuring” laws, which prohibit conducting bank transactions below $10,000 to evade federal reporting requirements. The law is in place to prevent crimes like money laundering, but the study found that in 91% of cases, the seized funds were from a legal source, such as a family-owned business. The study also found that IRS agents were encouraged to conduct “quick hits,” where property was easier to seize, “rather than pursue cases with other criminal activity (such as drug trafficking or money laundering), which are more time-consuming.”

Taking money from people has always been easier than fighting crime. That much has been obvious for years. The IRS said the quiet part loud on accident. This report says everything the government isn’t willing to admit to the public, much less itself: the point of forfeiture programs is to enrich those performing the forfeitures. That’s it. That’s the entire thing. Any reductions in criminal activity are purely coincidental.


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