This time, it’s Homeland Security, and its move to confuse and then steal from, an American family, that is hard at work. The present case involves a couple and their two-year-old daughter traveling from George Bush International Airport in Houston, TX, to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the wife’s city of birth and a cash-and-carry city, where they planned to stay for two months visiting her family. At the airport, TSA agents confiscated every dollar the family had on them because they were confused both about what constituted “currency” in the agents’ eyes and were uncertain about the amount of money they had on them and in their luggage.
Their case wound up in Federal District Court for the Southern District of Texas; here are some excerpts from District Judge Lynn N. Hughes’ ruling [emphasis mine]:
The government presented no evidence—none—that the Joneses intended to evade the reporting requirements. Kyle told Hernandez that he did not know the amount of money he was carrying. Saying “I do not know” is not a deliberate failure to report. After Hernandez insisted on an answer, Kyle said that he would have to guess. Guessing is not a material omission or a misstatement of fact—certainly not one the government can use to steal the money.
These public servants sought to earn credit with their agency by collecting money. Some of it is returned to the agency—like justices of the peace whose pay is derived directly from the fines they impose. They focused on bureaucratic imperatives—not their duties to the public and law.
A lack of leadership at the agency allowed this. Its mission statement—which none of the officers could recall at the trial—is to serve the American public with vigilance, integrity, and professionalism. They displayed none of these. The agency says that integrity is its cornerstone; that its officers are guided by the highest ethical and moral principles. A gang of armed security officers bullied this family—a family who cooperated with the officers to their detriment. Our homeland will not be secure by these rascals.
While Mr and Mrs Jones, the parents in this traveling family, might be derided for not knowing how much money they had with them, this is neither illegal, evidence of illegality, nor actionable under any other guise of interest to Homeland Security. Nevertheless, on being pressed to fill out (legitimately required) forms declaring the amount of money the Jones were taking out of the US based solely on their guess, their money then had been seized in its entirety, without allowing the Jones to correct their error. It’s also important to note that the amount stolenseized was over $31,000 and that the recommended penalty for an actual evasion of this type is a forfeiture of $500-$5,000.
Judge Hughes ordered the Jones’ full $31,131, the amount seized, returned to them and she awarded the Jones court costs and legal fees. I would have added to that the $1,500 the Jones were required to pay for a new airline ticket, this assault having forced them to miss their scheduled flight; the cost of the hotel room they were forced to get while waiting for that next-day flight; and the value of their time consumed by this wholly unnecessary delay.
The complete opinion is short and to the point, and it can be found here.
Note, though, that despite my (and others’) pontificating on this, it’s not Homeland Security’s fault. After all, as DHL Secretary Janet Napolitano said in another case,
Look, everybody has a role to play. … And if people don’t want to play that role, if they want to travel by some other means, of course that’s their right. This is the United States….