Getting Your Money Back After It’s Seized at the Airport
Getting money seized at the airport can be an incredibly frustrating and stressful experience. According to reports, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents have seized nearly $2 billion from travelers at airports across the country over the past 17 years. Of that total, a staggering $500 million was taken solely because travelers failed to properly declare amounts over $10,000 when flying internationally.
If you’ve had cash seized from you at an airport, don’t panic. While the process of getting your money back can be long and arduous, it is possible with the right legal help on your side. This article will walk you through exactly what to do step-by-step if CBP or another government agency has seized your money after traveling.
Understanding Airport Cash Seizure Laws
Before diving into the process of getting your money back, it’s important to understand the laws around carrying cash while traveling. According to U.S. federal law, travelers must declare amounts over $10,000 when flying internationally or face the possibility of seizure. This requirement applies to cash, monetary instruments, and even prepaid cards.
The form travelers must fill out when carrying over $10,000 internationally is called a FinCEN 105. Failure to properly complete this form can result in civil asset forfeiture, where CBP seizes your money but never formally brings criminal charges against you.
While this may seem unfair, CBP will argue in court that the undeclared cash was involved in illegal activity or money laundering. So even if you simply forgot to declare your cash, you may face an uphill legal battle getting it back.
Step 1: Get Your Custody Receipt and Documents
The first step after having cash seized at an airport is to make sure you get all the relevant paperwork from CBP documenting the seizure. This should include:
- Custody Receipt for Seized Property (Form 6051S): Provides details on the seizure like the amount taken and the justification
- Currency Inventory Sheet: Documents exactly how much cash was seized and how it was packaged
- Petition for Remission or Mitigation: Explains how you can contest the seizure and try to get your money back
Thoroughly review all forms and documents before leaving the airport. If anything seems incorrect or missing, bring this up immediately to the CBP officers. Getting inaccuracies corrected now can help your case down the road.
Step 2: Act Quickly and Hire a Lawyer
Perhaps the most critical step after a cash seizure is acting quickly to contest it. Strict deadlines apply to seizure cases, usually 30-60 days to submit a claim. This is where an experienced asset forfeiture lawyer can prove invaluable.
A knowledgeable lawyer can walk you through the complex process, submit petitions and claims on your behalf, and argue for return of your money. Don’t wait weeks or months to contact an attorney, as the fastest path to getting your cash back is engaging legal counsel immediately.
In addition to submitting a claim, your lawyer may also be able to convince prosecutors to return some or all of your cash without a court fight. Through negotiating directly with the seizing agency, often U.S. Customs and Border Protection, many cases can be resolved favorably this way.
Step 3: Gather Evidence to Support Your Claim
While your lawyer works through official channels, you need to gather up any evidence showing the cash is rightfully yours. This can include:
- Bank statements: Showing large withdrawals that match seized amounts
- Business records: Documents tying the cash to business operations and expenses
- Tax returns: Declaring income sufficient to account for the cash
- Receipts: For any items you purchased with the seized cash
The more documentation you have proving the cash is from legitimate sources, the better. CBP will investigate the origin of any money seized, so being able to show a paper trail is crucial.
Step 4: File a Claim Opposing the Forfeiture
Once you’ve hired a lawyer, they can begin filing formal claims to contest the seizure and have your money returned. Common grounds for opposing cash forfeitures include:
- Lack of notice: You weren’t properly informed of reporting requirements
- Fourth Amendment violations: Your detention or questioning was unlawful
- Excessive fine: The seizure grossly outweighs any alleged offense
- Innocent owner defense: The money was from lawful sources
Your lawyer will identify the strongest legal arguments and submit a detailed claim spelling them out. Expect this to be the beginning of a lengthy legal process, potentially involving going before a judge or appeal.
Step 5: Be Prepared to Litigate Extensively
In many cash seizure cases, simply submitting a petition or claim is not enough. The government often rejects initial claims, requiring going to court to fight for return of your money.
The litigation process can take many months or even years. It may involve multiple appeals and battling all the way to higher courts. Each step usually means more legal expenses too.
This is why having an experienced asset forfeiture lawyer is so important. The forfeiture process is designed to be extremely difficult for ordinary people without legal knowledge to navigate. Don’t expect getting your money back to be quick or easy.
Step 6: Get Help Paying Legal Costs
Between lawyers, court fees, and other expenses, regaining seized cash can become very costly. Fortunately, there are options for getting help with legal costs in forfeiture cases, including:
- Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act: Requires government to pay fees if you substantially prevail
- Equal Access to Justice Act: Covers fees for prevailing against unjust government action
- Private legal aid organizations: Some groups like the Institute for Justice provide legal help in forfeiture cases
Don’t let fears over legal fees stop you from fighting back. Talk to your lawyer about ways to get assistance so you can focus on getting your wrongfully seized money returned.
Airport Cash Seizure Case Examples
To understand the lengthy battles travelers face getting seized money back, it helps to look at real-world examples:
Anthonia Nwaorie – $41,000 Seized
- Nigerian medical clinic founder Anthonia Nwaorie had $41,000 seized in Houston in 2017 despite no criminal charges.
- Even after months of litigation, CBP initially only returned the cash with restrictive conditions.
- Nwaorie refused to comply and sued CBP, finally getting her full $41,000 back in 2018.
Jerry Johnson – $39,500 Seized
- Business owner Jerry Johnson had $39,500 seized by Phoenix police in 2020 after flying to buy a truck.
- Despite proof the cash was lawfully his, it took over 2 years of court battles before his money was returned in March 2023.
Saginaw, MI Man – $232,000 Seized
- A man flying to Detroit had $232,000 seized by CBP in checked luggage, although no charges were filed.
- After challenging the seizure, all but $2,000 of his cash was finally returned in March 2023.
As you can see, getting seized money back requires tenacity and reliable legal help. Never give up hope though – with the right strategy these cases can ultimately be won.
Tips to Avoid Airport Cash Seizures
The best way to handle airport cash seizures is avoiding them entirely. Here are some tips to reduce the risk of having your money taken:
- Always properly declare amounts over $10,000 on the FinCEN 105 form when flying internationally.
- Keep cash in a carry-on bag rather than checked luggage – it reduces seizure risk.
- Bring documentation showing the source of your cash in case questioned by officers.
- Politely refuse to answer questions if detained – ask to speak to a lawyer first.
- Split up cash between multiple people flying together. Each can carry under $10,000.
- Mail cash to your destination or wire it rather than carrying it through airports.
While following the rules is no guarantee, being prepared can help keep your money safe from unjustified seizures.
Don’t Delay – Start Your Fight Today
Thousands continue having cash seized every year at airports across America. But with the right legal help, many are able to successfully get their money back through fighting back. Don’t wait to contact an asset forfeiture attorney after a seizure – begin building your case immediately.