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Currency Seizures at JFK Airport

Did you know that you can legally carry any amount of money on a domestic flight? Despite this fact, Drug Enforcement Agents (DEA) agents at the JFK International Airport use civil asset forfeiture laws to seize U.S. currency from unsuspecting travelers.

DEA justifies the seizures based on highly circumstantial evidence suggesting that the money was used for drug trafficking or money laundering.

In many of these cases, the money is initially detected by scanners at the TSA security checkpoint. The TSA agent will detain the traveler in order to confirm the large amount of U.S. Currency. The TSA agent will also note the traveler's identity and itinerary.

After the traveler is permitted to leave the TSA security checkpoint, the TSA agent might send a "secret tip" to a DEA agent. The DEA agent goes to the gate to find the traveler with the intention of seizing the money.

While the traveler is waiting outside the gate to board the flight, the DEA agent might call out the person's name and start asking questions. Although the traveler is not required to answer questions or consent to a search, many travelers feel forced to do so.

When the DEA discovers the U.S. Currency, they might seize it claiming the person is involved in drug trafficking or money laundering. After the seizure, the DEA agent might hand the traveler a receipt for an "undisclosed amount" of U.S. Currency or cash. If the actual amount of money seized is not listed on the receipt, then the traveler then has to worry about whether some of the money might go missing.

DEA agents handle many of the currency seizures at JFK for domestic flights. Before or after an international flight, special agents with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) or Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) might seize any money not disclosed on the FinCEN Form 105 at the JFK airport. 

At the LaGuardia Airport, federal agents with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), are more likely to conduct the investigations and seize the currency for forfeiture.

How to Get Your Money Back After a Seizure at JFK Airport

The federal agency that seized the money might tell you to wait for a "notice of seizure" to arrive in the mail within 60 days. But you do not have to wait. Instead, you can retain an attorney to help you contest the DEA's seizure for civil asset forfeiture in court. Similar procedures can be used of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) or Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) seized the money at the airport.

By filing the verified claim for court action immediately after the money is seized, you can speed up the process considerably. Filing a demand for court action is the ONLY way to contest the legality of the seizure.

The DEA's administrative procedures for filing a petition for remission or mitigation don't typically work. The petitions for remission or mediation with the DEA almost always results in a form letter being sent months later. The form letter often indicates that DEA has decided to keep all of the money. 

The better course of action is to hire an attorney to file a verified claim for court action. The verified claim starts a 90-day deadline. During that time, DEA has to turn the case over to an Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) in the forfeiture unit. The AUSA has to decide whether to file a "complaint for forfeiture" in the U.S. District Court, or just return all the money.

We work hard to show the AUSA all of the reasons that the money should be returned, including a showing that the initial detention was illegal from its inception. First, TSA is not supposed to provide "tips" to DEA that a traveler is carrying a large amount of cash. Secondly, DEA agents are not supposed to surround a traveler and start questioning them about how much money they are carrying.

DEA agents make all kinds of mistakes that violate a traveler's rights. If the initial detention was not "free and voluntary," then the DEA agent needed a search warrant to conduct the search. Without a warrant or consent, then the detention was illegal from its inception or became unreasonably prolonged.

Over the years, the DEA has gotten very good at seizing currency from unsuspecting travelers. Many of these travelers have very good reasons for carrying the cash that has nothing to do with drugs or money laundering. The net being cast by DEA is often too wide and entraps innocent people.

Attorney for DEA Seizures of U.S. Currency at the JFK Airport

If your money was taken by a Special Agent of the Drug Enforcement (DEA) in New York working at the JFK International Airport, attorney Rochelle Berliner can help. Find out more about the best way to contest an illegal seizure of U.S. Currency.

Attorney Rochelle Berliner also handles currency seizures involving the special agents with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Attorney Rochelle Berliner understands the importance of quickly preserving any video surveillance recordings from DEA, CBP, the airport authorities, or the airlines. A court order is often required to get the surveillance video at the JFK International Airport. Obtaining the video is often the best way to show whether the TSA agent acted improperly by providing the "secret tip" and whether the DEA agent acted illegally when detaining the traveler.

Ms. Berliner can help you obtain a copy of any surveillance video at the JFK airport showing the way you were detained. The video surveillance needs to be obtained from the airport authorities within 30 days of the incident. Sometimes, a court order is required to preserve the video. For the JFK or LaGuardia airport, the preservation letter is sent to the FOI Administrator, 4 World Trade Center, 150 Greenwich Street, 25th Floor, New York NY 10007 or pafoi@panynj.gov.

Trying to get the money back is not a good "do-it-yourself" project. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) does not fully explain the different options or the pros and cons of each approach. People often ask for an extension of the deadline to submit a claim only to be denied any relief at all. Another mistake people make is sending the claim, but not getting it to the DEA on time.

If the claim isn't verified or doesn't contain all of the statutorily required information, then the claim will be quickly denied. Filing the claim on time is not the only challenge. In fact, filing the claim is just the beginning. An attorney can investigate the facts of the case, find favorable evidence, and show the AUSA all the reasons that 100% of the money should be returned.

Instead of fighting the DEA currency seizure case yourself, hire an experienced civil asset forfeiture attorney who can represent you during each stage of the process. By helping you file a verified claim for a judicial referral for court action, attorney Rochelle Berliner can help you fight to get the money back and make sure your rights are protected at each stage of the process.

Call 718-261-5600 today.


Statistics on Recent Cash Seizures by the New York DEA Office

Although the traffic at the AFK airport is down during the COVID-19 pandemic, the amount of money being seized is up. The DEA special agents have also become more aggressive in soliciting tips from TSA screeners who detect cash on unsuspecting travelers.

In April and May of 2020, the New York Post reported that investigators from the New York DEA office seized more than sixteen million dollars ($16,000,000). During the same period in the prior year, DEA seized only five million dollars ($5,000,000). During the first two weeks of June of 2020, DEA agents seized $3,100,000 compared to $1,200,000 in 2019.

These cases often involve special agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and detectives with the New York City Police Department ("NYPD) assigned to the Drug Enforcement Agency ("DEA") office housed at John F. Kennedy International Airport ("JFK Airport").

Read more about the seizure of cash for forfeiture at the airport in New York.


This article was last updated on Monday, January 4, 2020.

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Rochelle Berliner
Rochelle Berliner

Rochelle Berliner grew up in Queens, NY. She started New York Law School in January 1989 and graduated in June 1991. Immediately after law school, she started working at the New York County District Attorney’s Office, where she stayed for approximately 14 years...

  • National Police Accountability Project
  • National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
  • National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws
  • New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
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