The owner of a Charlotte, North Carolina trucking company is fighting to reclaim $40,000 after he says authorities wrongfully seized his cash at an airport.
“I definitely don’t think it was fair,” said Jerry Johnson, owner of Triple J Logistics, to FOX 46 Charlotte. “It’s very upsetting that people can just steal your money.”
The incident happened in August 2020, when Johnson flew to Phoenix to attend an auto auction where he planned to buy a third tractor-trailer for his company.
Johnson was traveling with $40,000 in cash to purchase the vehicle, which was typical for the auto auction he was attending he said.
“They’re very competitive,” Johnson said. “Thousands of people go there. It’s basically you bring your cash and put a deposit down.”
When he landed in Phoenix, an undercover officer approached him in baggage claim and asked if he had any money or drugs on him. According to Johnson, he was then interrogated.
“He told me if I didn’t sign that paper he’s going to arrest me,” Johnson said. “He was going to take that money because he thought I was part of a money-laundering operation.”
Johnson said he was presented with no evidence that he was committing a crime and insisted that he did nothing wrong.
Johnson signed away $39,500 even though he was never charged with a crime. According to the report filled out by the officer, Johnson stated that he “borrowed the money from several people” and “stated the money did not belong to him.”
The TSA and DEA view traveling with large sums of cash as suspicious, however, it is not illegal to carry cash in an airport.
A non-profit law firm, Institute for Justice, is fighting to get Johnson’s money back. The firm has filed a class-action lawsuit against both the TSA and DEA.
Paul Avelar, a managing attorney at the firm, says if authorities suspected Johnson of committing a crime they should have taken him to court.
“If the government suspects that Jerry was involved with money laundering, they can seize his money as evidence and maybe they can even seize it for future forfeiture,” said Avelar. “But then they actually have to show that he was involved in a crime. And there’s only one way to do that in this country and that’s through a criminal trial and a criminal conviction and of course none of that that has happened here.”
The TSA and DEA have attempted to have the case dismissed but a judge has now ruled that the case can move forward in federal court.
Money seized in cases like this is put into a federal forfeiture fund which can be used for any law enforcement purpose.
“We’re trying to shut this down,” said IJ senior attorney Dan Alban. “Because the government should not be treating travelers like ATMs.”