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What Should I Do If My Cash Is Seized at the Airport?

Finding yourself in a situation where your cash has been seized at the airport can be overwhelming and stressful. Whether it’s the DEA seizing your cash, money confiscated at the airport by security, or a customs cash seizure, knowing the proper steps to take can make a significant difference in your ability to recover your money. This article outlines the crucial actions you should take if your cash is seized at the airport and provides essential information on your rights and the legal processes involved.

Understanding Cash Seizure at Airports

Airports are hubs of heightened security and regulatory oversight, making them common locations for cash seizures. Law enforcement agencies such as the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), TSA (Transportation Security Administration), and CBP (Customs and Border Protection) are vigilant in monitoring travelers for large sums of cash that might be linked to illegal activities, such as drug trafficking or money laundering.

Reasons for Cash Seizure

  1. Undeclared Cash: If you are carrying more than $10,000 in cash or monetary instruments and fail to declare it upon entry or exit of the United States, CBP has the authority to seize it.
  2. Suspicion of Illicit Activities: Cash that is suspected to be connected to criminal activities, even without concrete proof, can be seized under civil asset forfeiture laws.
  3. DEA Seizures: The DEA may seize cash if they believe it is connected to drug trafficking, often based on large amounts of cash or suspicious behavior.

Steps to Take If Your Cash Is Seized

1. Stay Calm and Cooperative

When confronted by authorities, it is essential to remain calm and cooperative. Being argumentative or evasive can escalate the situation. Politely ask for identification and clarification on the reason for the seizure.

2. Request Documentation

Ensure that you receive proper documentation of the seizure. This should include a Notice of Seizure, detailing the amount of cash taken, the reason for the seizure, and contact information for the seizing agency. This document is crucial for the subsequent legal process.

3. Do Not Admit Guilt

While it’s important to cooperate, be cautious about what you say. Avoid making any statements that could be construed as an admission of guilt or involvement in illegal activities. Remember, anything you say can be used against you in the legal process.

4. Contact an Attorney

Immediately contact an attorney who specializes in asset forfeiture and cash seizures. An experienced lawyer will guide you through the legal process, ensuring that your rights are protected and helping you to build a strong case for the return of your money.

Legal Process for Recovering Seized Cash

1. Filing a Claim

To begin the process of recovering your seized cash, you need to file a claim with the seizing agency. The Notice of Seizure you received will include instructions and a deadline for filing this claim. Typically, you have 30 days to submit your claim, which must include a sworn statement under penalty of perjury asserting your ownership of the cash and your intent to contest the forfeiture.

2. Cost Bond Requirement

In some cases, especially with customs cash seizures, you may be required to post a cost bond. This bond is usually 10% of the seized cash’s value and serves as a security deposit to proceed with contesting the forfeiture. If you cannot afford this bond, you may request a waiver by demonstrating financial hardship.

3. Administrative Petition

As an alternative to filing a claim, you may submit an administrative petition for remission or mitigation. This petition essentially asks the seizing agency to return the money based on specific circumstances. However, this route is often less effective as the decision is made by the agency that seized the cash, and there is no opportunity for a hearing or appeal.

4. Judicial Forfeiture

If your claim is accepted, the case may move to judicial forfeiture. The U.S. Attorney’s Office will review your claim and decide whether to proceed with a formal complaint in federal court. If they choose to proceed, you will be served with a civil complaint, and you have 30 days to file a Verified Claim detailing your interest in the property.

Preparing for the Legal Battle

1. Gather Evidence

Collect all relevant documentation and evidence that supports your claim of legitimate ownership of the cash. This could include bank statements, withdrawal slips, business records, or any other documentation that shows the source and purpose of the money.

2. Understand Your Defenses

Work with your attorney to understand the possible defenses against the forfeiture. Common defenses include:

  • Innocent Owner: Proving you had no knowledge or involvement in any illegal activity connected to the cash.
  • Unreasonable Delay: Arguing that the government took too long to initiate the forfeiture process.
  • Illegal Search and Seizure: Demonstrating that the cash was seized without proper legal grounds.

3. Prepare for a Jury Trial

If your case proceeds to court, you have the right to request a jury trial. Ensure that your attorney includes this request in your filings to secure a fair trial.

Timeline for Returning Seized Cash

The time it takes to get your seized cash returned can vary widely. Factors influencing the timeline include the efficiency of the seizing agency, the complexity of your case, and the court’s schedule. Generally, the process can take several months to a few years. Promptly filing claims and adhering to deadlines can help expedite the process.


Having cash seized at the airport is a distressing experience, but understanding the legal process and knowing your rights can significantly improve your chances of recovering your money. Whether it’s the DEA seizing your cash, cash confiscated at an airport, or a customs cash seizure, following the correct steps and seeking legal assistance is crucial. Stay calm, gather your documentation, and work closely with an experienced attorney to navigate the complexities of asset forfeiture and reclaim your cash.

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