Beware of Currency Seizures

In the past two decades, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) seized over $2 billion in currency at airports mostly due to travelers’ failure to fill out the relevant form.

There is no limit to how much currency or other monetary instruments travelers may bring to or take out of the United States; however, federal law requires travelers to report all currency $10,000 or greater. Travelers leaving the U.S. are required to fill out FinCEN Form 105 with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) if they have more than $10,000 cash or certified checks/money orders (yes, certified checks must be reported!). The consequences for violating U.S. reporting laws are severe; penalties may include seizure of most or all of the traveler’s currency, or potential criminal charges.

A recent study from the Institute for Justice reveals the shocking scale of airport seizures: Jetway Robbery? Homeland Security and Cash Seizures at Airports. The study covers only the years 2000 to 2016 during which the government conducted more than 30,000 airport currency seizures, totaling more than $2 billion; more than $500 million of that money was seized because of a failure to report flying internationally with $10,000 or more. Reporting violations represented half of all seizures. Nearly 70% of seizures were not accompanied by an arrest.  

For example, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers last month seized $46,628 in unreported currency from a man traveling to Cameroon at Washington Dulles International Airport.  CBP officers conducted random outbound inspections of passengers boarding a flight to Brussels, Belgium and asked a U.S. citizen how much currency he possessed. The man reported verbally that he had $30,000 and completed a U.S. Treasury Department form FinCEN 105. During a subsequent examination of the man’s carry-on bags, CBP officers discovered a total of $46,628 in U.S. dollars.

Our office has represented several clients accused of failure to report imported currency, which was later seized. There is very much a “seize first, ask questions later” mentality among law enforcement. Once the money is seized, travelers must fight federal forfeiture. An individual may petition for the return of seized currency, but the petitioner must prove that the source and intended use of the currency was legitimate. Legal counsel is strongly recommended for such hearings.

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