Happy Independence Day weekend, America! What better example of what “freedom” has come to mean in the United States than a situation where an airline passenger, after being prodded and searched by the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA), has his property photographed and publicized online by the TSA and then seized.
Was said property a gun or a bomb? Was he arrested and charged with a crime? No and no. It was cash. The man was carrying thousands of dollars in a bag through the airport at Richmond, Virginia. According to a TSA spokesperson, the “unknown bulk” of the bag’s contents triggered alerts, so they searched and found the money. Then somebody decided they should photograph this man’s personal property (by which I mean $75,000 or so) and post it on Twitter. To say that this is a violation of the man’s privacy would have to assume that the TSA has any grasp of what privacy even is.
There were some outraged responses from some people on Twitter at this flippant exposure by the TSA. But that’s just the insult. The injury is that a federal agency then seized the man’s cash. He now has to prove that the money is his and that it has no connection to any illegal activities, or the government may just keep it. The Washington Post, noting the seizure, points to TSA blog post from 2009 providing the agency’s justification for its behavior:
TSA officers routinely come across evidence of criminal activity at the airport checkpoint. Examples include evidence of illegal drug trafficking, money laundering, and violations of currency reporting requirements prior to international trips.
When presented with a passenger carrying a large sum of money through the screening checkpoint, the TSA officer will frequently engage in dialog with the passenger to determine whether a referral to law-enforcement authorities is warranted.
The TSA officer may consider all circumstances in making the assessment, including the behavior and credibility of the passenger. Thus, a failure to be forthcoming may inform a TSA officer’s decision to call law-enforcement authorities.
So even though it’s perfectly legal to carry huge sums of cash onto a plane, if you refuse to answer TSA agents’ questions about the money, or they just don’t believe you, or they just gin up whatever reason they like, they can summon law enforcement to seize it and then force you to grapple with the federal government’s incredibly complicated asset forfeiture process just to try to get it back (check out a flowchart here).