The Government Can Take Your Money for No Reason

If you carry too much cash the federal government can take it away from you. Yep, you read that right. If an agency, like the Transportation Safety Administration, the Drug Enforcement Administration or U.S. Customs and Border Protection finds someone carrying large amounts of cash they can confiscate it by simply declaring it to be “suspicious.” This is not a rare occurrence.

A 2017 inspector general’s investigation found that over the last decade the DEA has seized more than $4 billion in cash from those suspected of drug activity. But most of the money seized – $3.2 billion of it – never resulted in any criminal charges. This doesn’t include the value of all the other favorite targets of seizure like cars or homes.

Rebecca Brown and Her Father, Terry Rolin are fighting the DEA for return of Rolin's life savings -- photo courtesy Youtube, Institute for Justice
Rebecca Brown and Her Father, Terry Rolin

The latest questionable case of what the feds call a “civil asset forfeiture” occurred in August 2019 at the Pittsburgh Airport. Retiree Terry Rolin, 79, never trusted banks so he kept his money in a large Tupperware container hidden in his basement – all $82,273 of it. When Mr. Rolin moved into an apartment it didn’t feel safe, so he asked his visiting daughter to take his life savings and open a bank account for him.

Rebecca Brown, flying to her home in Boston the next morning, checked the internet to see if carrying that much cash was prohibited and thought it was completely legal. At the airport the TSA spotted Rebecca’s money-filled carry on bag, alerted Pennsylvania State troopers and the DEA, and the money was seized.

The law requires the government to return seized property or initiate criminal proceedings within 90 days. No charges were ever filed against the father-daughter duo, and neither has a police record, but in October Rebecca received notice that the DEA planned to permanently keep the cash, citing the agency’s authority to combat crime. She and her father, with the help of the Institute for Justice, have now filed a lawsuit.

The Institute for Justice Helps Those Caught Up In Asset Forfeiture

The Institute’s senior attorney, Dan Alban, says this is happening across the U.S. “We’ve been contacted by people who have been traveling to buy used cars or buy equipment for their business and had their cash seized,” he said. Alban bluntly calls the practice “illegal and unconstitutional.

In the summer of 2014, Vito DiDonato, the gregarious and generous owner of pizza parlors in Los Angeles, boarded a train carrying $183,070 cash destined for a needy relative in the east. When the train stopped in Albuquerque DEA agents boarded and searched all passengers and luggage. Vito, a man with no prior police record, had his hard-earned “suspicious” cash seized. A District Judge in Albuquerque granted the government four extensions to file charges. They never materialized. For three years DiDonato’s lawyers fought to get his money returned and were finally successful. Imagine DiDonato’s legal bill! **

Photo courtesy Institute of Justice
Rustem Kazazi of Cleveland Won a Case Against US Customs

In October 2017, Rustem Kazazi, of Cleveland, Ohio packed up the $58,100 he had saved and prepared to fly back to his home country of Albania to help strapped relatives and perhaps find himself a retirement home. Kazazi, 64, a former police officer in his homeland, had legally immigrated years earlier with his family and all had become proud American citizens. At the airport Customs agents stopped him, stripped him naked and confiscated his money. Later, the CBP explained the money was “involved in a smuggling/drug trafficking/money laundering operation” yet no charges were filed. Kazazi, with the help of the Institute of Justice, finally got his money returned. Restoring his faith in America may be harder.

That same month CBP agents in Houston seized $41,000 from Anthonia Nwaorie, a registered nurse traveling to Nigeria to open a medical clinic for needy women and children. Nwaorie had no idea about a federal law requiring international travelers to report if they are carrying more than $10,000. After much legal wrangling the Institute of Justice helped Nwaorie get her money back.

 Photo courtesy Institute of Justice
Anthonia Nwaorie Had Saved to Open a Clinic in Nigeria

Traveling with your own hard-earned/diligently saved cash is not – and should never be considered – a criminal act. Of course, we want the government to be able to seize ill-gotten cash from known drug dealers, human traffickers and other criminals. But what is unacceptable is over-zealous federal agents impounding an innocent citizen’s cash willy-nilly and then holding it for months or even forever. Those agents should be disciplined or fired.

** Correction: Vito DiDonato was not on that eastbound train. He had entrusted his money to a loyal employee who was to deliver the money to one of DiDonato’s relatives who had suffered massive damage from Hurricane Sandy. I regret the error.



  1. Diane Dimond on February 4, 2020 at 7:49 pm

    Reader Dave Imbriaco@DaveImbSays writes:

    Ah, ye olde Civil Asset Forfeiture. Also known also legal theft by the state.

  2. Diane Dimond on February 4, 2020 at 7:53 pm

    Reader Gordon Cucullu writes:

    Terrible situation.

  3. Diane Dimond on February 4, 2020 at 7:53 pm

    Reader Bill Voinovich writes:

    WHAT CASH???

  4. Diane Dimond on February 4, 2020 at 7:53 pm

    Reader Jason Bonnet writes:

    I’m beginning to believe that 99% of the people in this country are in danger!

  5. Diane Dimond on February 4, 2020 at 7:54 pm

    Reader Charles King writes:

    The cash I print up as needed is totally above suspicion. So far. Uh oh, just got a hit on my firewall from Eff Bee Eye….

  6. Diane Dimond on February 4, 2020 at 7:54 pm

    Reader Patti Petow writes:


  7. Diane Dimond on February 4, 2020 at 7:54 pm

    Reader Lori Nelson writes:

    Don’t take thousands through an airport.
    Cash can’t fly.

  8. Diane Dimond on February 5, 2020 at 12:36 pm

    Reader Paul Huebl writes:

    This outrageous program along with the Patriot Act is an unAmerican Orwellian nightmare. The courts have done a really pathetic job of protecting our Bill of Rights. It takes forever and a day to get a final ruling on anything. It seems the only TRO’s ever issued only protect abortions and politicians.

  9. Diane Dimond on February 5, 2020 at 12:37 pm

    Reader Rene A. Michael writes:

    Like abusive Guardianships the government has proven itself corrupt in too many cases! Thanks for this article, I had no idea.

  10. Diane Dimond on February 5, 2020 at 12:48 pm

    Reader Matthew Perry writes:

    Guilty until proven innocent

  11. Diane Dimond on February 5, 2020 at 12:48 pm

    Reader Mary Bush writes:

    That’s not all they are taking, they are taking family members through administrative courts then taking estates, Americans don’t know just how bad empty fictional accusations are destroying lives.

    • Diane Dimond on February 5, 2020 at 12:48 pm

      Reader Jason Bonnet replies to Mary Bush:

      I know that the state of Oregon is involved in elder extortion.

  12. Diane Dimond on February 17, 2020 at 11:11 am

    Reader Unseen Bear writes:

    It’s time to change the laws that allow this abuse. Revisions ought to include severe and mandatory penalties for any government employees who wrongly target the innocent.

    I for one am tired of being given the one-size-fits-all treatment that allows public servants and medical personnel to treat us all like we’re presumed to be lowest common denominator criminals….simply because some people break the law.

    Americans deserve better.

  13. Diane Dimond on February 17, 2020 at 11:11 am

    Reader Doug Wallace writes:

    I better put it back under my mattress!

  14. Diane Dimond on February 17, 2020 at 11:11 am

    Reader Hugh Thomas writes:

    About 30 some years ago, a woman, 80, cashed her insurance check for $25,000; her house had burned down. She was stopped by a Volusia Co. sheriff and they seized her money, leaving her homeless.

  15. Diane Dimond on February 17, 2020 at 11:12 am

    Reader Roxolana Demczuk writes:

    It’s not «overzealous» agents. I think this is bc the gov wants to keep track of everything about you. If you bank your money, of course the gov knows exactly how much you have. So it is not a matter of «you are laundering drug money» —it is more a matter of « We don’t know about it». It is a matter of the gov having control over all of its citizens. It wants to control the individual. We need to vote for those who will protect individual freedoms and liberty.

  16. Diane Dimond on February 17, 2020 at 11:12 am

    Reader Phil Murphy writes:

    Preferably the latter – Those agents should be disciplined or fired.

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