Think Twice Before Heading to the Airport With That Huge Wad of Cash

July 27, 2020

Jul. 26--When he heads to airports now, Samuel Haile thinks of that day at Buffalo's airport a few years ago. The government took $12,000 from his carry-on and wouldn't give it back. 

Haile was not charged with a crime, but he had to prove his cash was not a windfall from a drug sale or wasn't about to be spent on illegal drugs.

"I was angry," Haile said. "But there was really nothing I could do."

Dozens of passengers have suffered such a loss in recent years in Buffalo. With an X-ray machine, a screener spots a dense mass in a piece of luggage. If it's an unusually large sum of cash, the government takes it on the suspicion that it's drug money.

At Buffalo Niagara International and every other airport in the country, the Transportation Security Administration screens bags and people in the name of airline safety, not because police have probable cause to think a crime is underway.

Still, those searches enrich law enforcement.

In Buffalo, according to internal reports obtained by The Buffalo News, airport police and federal agents seized more than $860,000 over four years -- more than $17,000 a month, on average -- without charging the traveler with a crime. In fact, the dozens of travelers relieved of their money were sent on their way.

In this age of credit cards and debit cards, most people need not carry large sums. Yet some people do, and no law prohibits flying within the United States with any amount of cash. Those travelers explained they were off to buy cars, legally gamble or relocate to new homes. But to agents and officers at the airport, many stories did not pass muster. The bills were dropped into evidence bags.

TSA screeners can only seize objects that might imperil an airliner, and cash does not pose such a threat. Yet the screeners set the wheels in motion. The documents obtained by The News through the Freedom of Information Law show that after spotting amounts as small as $6,000, screeners turned to supervisors, who turned to Niagara Frontier Transit Authority police. The police called in their federal partners in a joint task force, usually the DEA or the FBI.

Typically, someone asked if the traveler minded being driven over to the police station on Aero Drive for a few questions. Inside, a video camera was clicked on, and the traveler was asked to elaborate about occupation and income. Any hesitation or inconsistency was noted.

A drug-sniffing dog was led in. Most paper currency in the United States has come into contact with drugs, research has shown. The dog, in cases reviewed by The News, consistently confirmed the scent of narcotics. That gave the officials the final measure of probable cause needed to keep the cash. In a few weeks, the traveler received mailed instructions on how to appeal for the money's return.

Because the NFTA police worked with federal agencies, the money was seized under the federal asset-forfeiture system. Under this route, the police agency is eligible to keep up to 80%, depending on how much work was involved. That's a larger share than it would keep under New York's law. Further, with the federal system, the police need not make an arrest.

George Gast is chief of the NFTA police, a former FBI agent who occasionally worked undercover and supervised agents targeting organized crime and the drug trade. He says the money seized from travelers has gone to buy weapons, vehicles, Narcan and to finance many other law enforcement purposes.

Not all the travelers who are spotted with large sums of money have it taken, Gast says, "not by a long shot."

"Am I confident we always get it right? Nobody's 100%," he said when asked if he believes his officers and federal agents are always correct in assuming a traveler had illegal motives when they seized money.

"But just because money is seized, doesn't mean it is forfeited," he said. "Whenever the money is seized, the person that money comes from has an opportunity to appeal that seizure."

When the travelers went to court to get their money back, Richard D. Kaufman was often the government official working against them. Before he retired in June, Kaufman was an assistant U.S. attorney and an expert in the forfeiture law. He would gather facts in an attempt to show the money was gained illegally or the traveler intended to use it for illegal purposes.

When asked why many travelers who go to court to get their money back end up compromising and letting the government keep a portion, Kaufman acknowledged the expense of fighting back.

Travelers see the futility of paying a lawyer, say, $20,000 to recover $10,000, he said. Lawyers, Kaufman said, will advise clients to "cut your losses."

The law

Haile, of Rochester, and countless travelers across the country became poorer because of Title 21, U.S. Code, section 881 (a)(6). It lets federal authorities take "all moneys, negotiable instruments, securities, or other things of value furnished or intended to be furnished by any person in exchange for a controlled substance or listed chemical ..."

Sometimes, the authorities in Buffalo had good reason to be suspicious about money they saw. In January 2017, for example, the police and agents kept $9,928 found in luggage along with a marijuana grinder, gummi bears made of marijuana and instructions on how to grow marijuana. The traveler admitted he had grown marijuana in the past, records say.

Months later, NFTA police and the DEA took $64,000 from three people who said they were traveling to Houston for a birthday party. The officers and agents felt they were given vague answers as to how they came by the cash. Three days later, the NFTA police learned from officers in Houston that one of the travelers had just been arrested with a kilo of cocaine.

The News found two other cases where travelers who had their cash taken were later charged in large-scale drug investigations.

Haile and many others were different.

"I was a party promoter, and I dealt with a lot of cash," he told The News.

An interrogation

In June 2016, Haile went to the Buffalo airport for a flight to Houston to visit friends. He and the friends were to drive to New Orleans for a festival, and Haile was eventually to fly to California to visit other friends. He explained to the officials that he carried the $12,000 because he had bad credit and his bank withdrawals were limited.

He told them he earned the money in three ways: He owned three taxis. He had started a small home improvement store. He owned "Train to Go Entertainment," a party promotion business.

The money included 515 $20 bills.

The prosecutors found $20 bills suspicious. "Small denominations are more commonly used than other denominations in street-level drug trafficking," they said in court papers.

Small denominations are used to pay taxi drivers, too, Haile countered, and to get into special parties and events, he said. As his case headed to court, Haile filed papers that included a flyer from an event he promoted: A ticket cost $20.

His father, a registered nurse in Rochester, wrote a letter to the federal judge. "I assure you that money was not collected by selling drugs," he said. "I will never allow my son to be a drug dealer."

But prosecutors also cited a minor conviction in his son's past, attempted drug possession. The case had been disposed of with a conditional discharge three years earlier.

Inside the NFTA police station on Aero Drive, Haile watched as his money was placed in a cardboard box and one of the NFTA's drug-sniffing dogs was brought in.

Research led by a scientist at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth found a decade ago that up to 90% of U.S. paper currency contains traces of cocaine. Researchers have also found traces of heroin in as much of 70% of bills and lesser percentages of codeine, amphetamines and methamphetamines.

Kaufman, the now retired federal prosecutor, acknowledges those findings but relies on a court-tested study in Miami that showed dogs are not hitting on traces of contamination but on the scent of drugs, and the scent can dissipate in 48 to 72 hours unless the bills have been wrapped in say, cellophane, or materials that trap odors. To him, the Miami study proves a dog's hit confirms the currency has been in recent contact with drugs.

Researchers have also found, however, that handlers can affect a dog's findings. At the University of California at Davis in 2011, 18 police handlers were asked to lead their dogs through controlled searches for drugs, and they were told some hiding places were marked by a piece of red paper. Handlers weren't told that no search area contained drugs. In the vast majority of searches, the dogs hit on a drug scent when they shouldn't have. To the researchers, it indicated that a handler's expectations can sway the outcome.

Gast said the dog is the final investigative technique used to establish the money is connected to the drug trade.

That was indeed true in Haile's case. He watched as an NFTA dog scratched the box containing his money.

"The suspect was then advised that his currency was being seized," the NFTA's report says.

$36,000 seized

Kaufman said authorities suspect that some travelers are taking large sums of money to three states where recreational marijuana is legal -- California, Washington and Oregon -- to buy large quantities and drive it back.

John E. Roneker, of Buffalo, was traveling to Oregon in February 2015 when he had $36,000 seized. But Roneker was flying a few months before the state completed its system legalizing marijuana.

Roneker said he didn't try to conceal the money. He had read online advice telling him to notify the TSA screener that he was carrying a large amount of currency, so he did.

Roneker said he travels to car auctions or private sales to buy cars to resell. Sellers balk at personal checks, he said, and he has found that even cashier's checks are looked at warily when presented by an out-of-towner. Cash makes sellers more comfortable and, he said, helps him bargain.

"Having cash gives you leverage," he said.

Roneker showed the screener a business certificate for his company, Nickel City Wholesale Auto of Buffalo, and paperwork for the car, or cars, he had his eye on.

He was soon driven to NFTA police headquarters.

A DEA task force agent began making calls. People at the businesses in the Portland area that Roneker had dealings with didn't back up every detail he had offered to the TSA or the police. For example, Gilbert Enterprises Auto Auction, near Grimsby, Ore., had no auctions scheduled for the day Roneker said he would be there. And it didn't have a 1967 Barracuda, one of the cars Roneker said he intended to buy.

Roneker later responded in court papers that he never said he was going to a Gilbert auction and never said Gilbert had the Barracuda.

The DEA agent found Roneker had a criminal record and pulled out a marijuana-related arrest from 1989, when Roneker was 17 years old. In 1991, he was charged with resisting arrest and pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, a violation. In January 2000 he was charged with assault but, the DEA found, the charge was dismissed a month later. In July 2014, he paid a $100 fine after admitting to a violation for possessing a personal amount of marijuana.

The vast majority of Roneker's cash was in $20 bills -- "characteristic of currency received by drug distributors from their customers," the authorities wrote in court papers.

At police headquarters, an NFTA officer brought in Deuce, a dog "capable of detecting the odors of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines and their derivatives," court papers said. When Deuce was done, the police told Roneker he could fly to Oregon but his money could not.

"They put me through hell for no reason," Roneker said. "You were assumed guilty and you had to prove you were innocent."

Almost $50,000 taken

The authorities found no criminal record to use against Daniel A. Sherer. Regardless, they took his $49,900. Most of it, $45,000, was held in two document-sized envelopes in his carry-on bag in 2015. The rest was in a fishing boot in his checked bag.

Sherer told police the $45,000 came from an insurance settlement after fire destroyed his fishing boat 10 years earlier, in Dana Point, Calif. At the time, Sherer explained, he was dealing with alcoholism and gambling issues, so he gave the settlement money to a friend for safekeeping. A decade later, Sherer and the friend had a falling out, and he flew to Buffalo to retrieve the money. The friend, a Cheektowaga resident, met him at a Dunkin Donuts near the airport and handed it over, Sherer explained to authorities.

The NFTA police and an FBI agent figured the money was drug proceeds because some of the bills had been printed after 2004 or 2005, when Sherer asked the friend to hold the money. Most of the bills were twenties, "significant in that law enforcement believes that the $20 bills are often an indicator of drug traffickers," the authorities said in court papers. Further, a specially trained dog had found that "controlled substances had recently been in contact with the currency."

Cash is the defendant

Travelers who have their cash taken can file a "petition," asking the federal agency involved in taking the money to return it. Travelers also can take their case to federal court.

They are asking that their money be pardoned because in the eyes of the federal government, the cash is the defendant. For example, Sherer's one case was titled "United States of America v. $49,900 in United States currency." The lawyers call the money "the defendant currency."

Money lacks the same rights as a person. To convict a person of a crime, prosecutors must prove their case "beyond a reasonable doubt," the highest legal standard. To forfeit money or property, prosecutors can win with a "preponderance of the evidence," the lowest standard. They need to show only that it's more likely than not that the cash was obtained illegally or will be spent for illegal purposes.

It's also more likely than not the government will keep the seized money no matter how the traveler fights back. In March 2017, the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General reported that over 10 years, the DEA returned money 8% of the time. Part of the reason might lie in the fact that not everyone tries to get the money back. Claims or petitions were filed in just 20% of the DEA's total seizures. Of those 20%, cash was returned in roughly four out of 10 cases.

"It's very difficult to get the money once the seizure happens," said Paul Avelar, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm devoted to, among other things, helping people recover their money. "You have to prove your own innocence. And if you can't prove your own innocence, you lose your money."

In its research, the Institute for Justice has found that "civil forfeiture," which allows the government to take property without proving a crime, has become far more common than criminal forfeiture. In one of its reports on the topic, called "Policing for Profit," the institute says "civil forfeiture laws pose some of the greatest threats to property rights in the nation today."

The NFTA police, for example, got to keep around $1.2 million that was seized from 2012-2016 without having to make an arrest, both at the airport and in work in and around Buffalo, according to Justice Department statistics analyzed by the Institute for Justice. By contrast, the NFTA's share of money from criminal forfeiture -- after a conviction -- amounted to about $23,000 over those years.

Retirement money seized

In January, the institute filed a class-action lawsuit against the TSA and the DEA on behalf of August Terrence Rolin of Pittsburgh and his daughter, Rebecca Brown of Boston. Brown had $82,373 seized from her at the Pittsburgh airport in August of last year. Neither was charged with a crime.

The lawsuit lays out this account: Rolin, a retired railroad engineer, felt more comfortable keeping his cash in his home. But as he moved from his house to an apartment, he asked his daughter, to whom he had given power of attorney, to place his cash in a checking account for him. The request came near the tail end of his daughter's visit. She figured she would open the account when she returned to Boston, and from there she would pay most of her father's bills. She took the cash with her.

Rebecca Brown checked online and found it's legal to carry any sum of money on a domestic flight, according to the Institute for Justice. But when the money showed up on an X-ray, the Pennsylvania State Police and then a DEA agent questioned her. The DEA agent took the $82,373. Then in early March, seven months after the money was taken and after a blizzard of publicity, the DEA relented. Brown and her father got the money back. The Institute for Justice is still pursing the class-action case.

Giving up

Not every traveler enlists a lawyer, or lawyers, to recover their money.

"I could not afford the lawyer," said Maxie S. Cohen of Rochester, who had an attorney file court papers for him but later surrendered most of the $70,100 taken at the Buffalo airport in November 2018.

Cohen was flying with his friend Susan Fisher to Los Angeles. Fisher, who had been carrying the money in her suitcase, refused to answer the officers' questions that day. But Cohen told The News she was thinking of relocating to California and investing in a restaurant there. In court papers, prosecutors never disputed Cohen's explanation that the money had come from lottery winnings, and he had paid tax on it.

But years earlier he had sent $8,000 in cash to California for a Jaguar and didn't contest that seizure after a police dog alerted handlers to the scent of drugs inside the package, the government said in court papers. (Cohen told The News he was acting as an intermediary for a friend, and it was up to the friend to recover the money.)

Because an NFTA dog in 2018 identified traces of narcotics on the currency seized at Buffalo's airport, the government said a preponderance of the evidence showed the money was to be spent buying drugs.

Months later, Cohen agreed the government could keep $42,060. He got back $28,040.

Similarly, Haile agreed to give up a portion of his $12,000 -- a little over $5,000. The rest was for him, but he didn't see it again. The balance went to pay overdue state and federal income taxes. He said he also gave up on his trip to Houston, New Orleans and California. With his money seized, he could no longer afford to go.

Daniel Sherer, who had almost $50,000 seized, got back $20,000. The government kept the rest.

As for Buffalo's Roneker, he was given back $20,000 of the $36,430 seized at the airport but had to use his share to pay late city and county taxes, a water bill and to pay off a judgment against him held by the Riverside Federal Credit Union.

Roneker's financial situation was already under stress. He had lost a house in Niagara County before moving to Buffalo. Not long after the government kept more than $16,000, he filed for bankruptcy.


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