NEW YORK - A federal law enforcement agency that confiscated a retired Pennsylvania man's life savings will not return it even though he is neither accused nor suspected of a crime. He was just someone who kept his cash in a box rather than a bank.
What the Drug Enforcement Administration did is legal. It's called civil asset forfeiture. But a lawsuit begs to differ. This is how the agents seized $82,373 that belonged to Terry Rolin, 79, of Pittsburgh, and why he and his daughter and now suing the feds to get the cash back.
For many years, Rolin, a retired railroad engineer, socked away his money in his basement, just like his parents did.
"Having been through the [Great] Depression, they were suspect of banks, and this was just a habit that carried through to my father," Rebecca Brown, Rolin's daughter, said in a video produced by a nonprofit legal group supporting their plight.
Last year, Rolin moved out of his family home and into an apartment. He didn't feel comfortable with that much cash lying around, so he asked his daughter, who was visiting him in August, to deposit the cash in a joint account.
"Between my grandparents and my father, they had set aside a bit over $80,000," Brown said. "We were going to utilize the money to have my dad receive some oral care that he is in dire need of and also do some truck repairs."
Brown said she didn't have time to go to a bank in Pittsburgh before catching a Monday morning flight to Boston (she lives in Lowell, Massachusetts). She said she checked online to confirm that she could carry that much cash onto a domestic commercial flight.
Yes, it is legal but could raise eyebrows. And it did.
The Institute for Justice, which filed a lawsuit against the DEA and the TSA on Rolin and Brown's behalf, said that what happened next is unfair and unconstitutional.
TSA officers at Pittsburgh International Airport pulled her aside so that a state trooper could question her about the cash, according to the Institute for Justice.
"The trooper came and asked me a bunch of questions: 'What are you doing with the money? Where are you taking it? Where did it come from?'" she said.
The police eventually let her proceed to the gate with her carry-on bag full of cash.
But later the same state trooper and a DEA agent stopped her before she could board her flight. The agent questioned Brown and then asked to speak to her father on the phone.
"He has me dial my father, who was awakened and quite confused and upset," Brown said. "And he answered the questions the DEA agent gave him."
Yet after the call, the agent wasn't satisfied.
"He turned around and said, 'Your answers don't match—I'm seizing the cash,'" Brown said. "I was the last person on the plane, with everyone staring at me."
That was Aug. 26, 2019.
In mid-October, the DEA informed Brown and Rolin that the agency would be permanently seizing the cash under its asset forfeiture program.
"My father and his father before him worked very hard for this money," Brown said. "And the fact that someone can put their hand into my pocket and just take it, without cause, was insulting [to me], as an American."
This is how the DEA describes the program on its own website: "Asset forfeiture is a tool in our country's battle against drug abuse, helping to shut down 'pill mills' and stop rogue doctors and pharmacists, as well as dealers…. Forfeiture, particularly civil forfeiture…, is very effective against drug crimes committed for profit."
However, neither Rolin nor Brown are suspected of being drug dealers. In civil forfeiture, the DEA makes a claim against the money itself, not its purported owners. A criminal case and conviction aren't required.
"No one has been charged with a crime," Brown said. "And they still have our money."
The Institute for Justice filed the lawsuit against the DEA and TSA on Jan. 15. It isn't just about getting back Rolin and Brown's $82,373. IJ lawyers are seeking class-action status for the lawsuit to apply to other travelers who have gone through the same thing.
Dan Alban, an IJ senior attorney, said in a statement that boarding a plane doesn't mean you give up your constitutional rights.
"Flying with any amount of cash is completely legal, but once again we see government agents treating American citizens like criminals," Alban said. "It is time for TSA and federal law enforcement to stop seizing cash from travelers simply because the government considers certain amounts of cash 'suspicious.'"
IJ argues that the government shouldn't be able to confiscate someone's money without probable cause and later keep it without a related criminal conviction. It also says the TSA, which is responsible for airline security, "exceeds its legal authority by seizing cash, which poses no threat to air travel."
In separate but almost identically worded emails to FOX 5 NY, spokespersons for the DEA and the TSA said their respective agencies do not comment on "ongoing" (DEA) and "pending" (TSA) litigation as "a matter of policy."
"I'm shocked that the government is able to do this and I would be surprised if any other American knows that when you walk into a domestic airport that whatever you have in your possession can be taken without cause," Brown said. "I'm fighting so that other Americans don't have to go through what my father and I have gone through."