Dallas police seized money from an airline passenger. The new information only makes their case weaker.
In December, Dallas police officers at the city’s Love Field Airport seized a passenger’s luggage based on an alert from a drug-addicted dog. There were no drugs in the bag, but they found over $106,000 in cash wrapped in bubble wrap. Police seized the money by asset forfeiture, but did not say why the money was seized or what the traveler was suspected of.
Now, more information has been released, raising additional questions about the police department’s history.
As Raison detailed at the time, there are no laws regarding the amount of money a person can carry on a domestic flight. But under civil asset forfeiture, a law enforcement agency need only allege that the money could have been used for criminal activities. In Texas, the standard of proof to seize someone’s money or other property is simply a preponderance of the evidence, whereas to recover the money or property the owner would have to go to court to prove that it was do not involved in criminal activity. Unless the property is returned, the police may retain a substantial part of the proceeds.
This week, the local CBS Dallas affiliate obtained the police report into the incident, in which officers explained why they ultimately chose to seize the money. After the drug-sniffing dog alerted them to a suitcase, police determined that since the bag was “destined for a known source city [Chicago] for the export of narcotics”, then that was enough to search her. The detective conducting the search said he “smelled the smell of marijuana”, although cash and packing material were the only contents of the suitcase.
Detectives located the traveler, a 25-year-old woman, and questioned her about the bag. They reported that she misidentified the suitcase as gray rather than black and that her description of the locking mechanism was inaccurate. They further asked her if she was carrying cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine, to which she replied no. When asked if she was carrying marijuana, according to the affiliate’s report, “police noted that she hesitated and her eyes rolled to the left” before saying no. When they asked her if she was carrying a lot of cash, she hesitated again and glanced left before saying no, she had about $20,000, which she said was from the sale of a house, and clothes.
Based on this, the police suspected that the money might be “the result of the sale of illegal narcotics” and seized it.
What emerges from this description is the manifest absence of crime. As noted, carrying large sums of cash on a domestic flight is not illegal. Although the bag may well have smelled of marijuana, possession is perfectly legal in Illinois, where the traveler lives and returned. And the Dallas Police Department said, in the initial statement it provided to Raison in December, that the traveler was in Dallas on a layover, so even if she was involved in drug trafficking, it certainly should have taken place wherever she flew from.
Not to mention that once detectives sat down with their suspect, the extent of her “suspicious behavior” was that she was acting nervous, underestimating the amount of money, and describing the physical appearance of the bag in a way inaccurate. Certainly, this could be the behavior of a devious narcotics dealer caught in the act – or it could just as easily be the mannerisms of a nervous young woman being questioned by the police at an airport in an unfamiliar city.
Distinguishing rapid eye movements from suspects evokes the explanations New York City police officers would use to justify the service’s many “stop and frisk” encounters each year: despite a miniscule number of searches that never revealed anything actionable, incident reports have routinely accused suspects of “stealthy travel” or being in a “high crime area” to justify being accosted and searched.
Confiscation of civilian property, as currently practiced, is a source of abuse by police services seeking to inflate their budgets. Fortunately, this case has prompted some state and local authorities in Texas to take a closer look at the possibility of reforming the practice. When the police are able to seize someone’s property simply by pretending that they could be used for criminal purposes, there is clearly a lot of room for improvement.