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Seizure of Cash at Seattle’s Airport

Under the laws in the State of Washington, U.S. Currency can be seized for forfeiture under RCW 69.50.505(1)(g) when the money is:

  • paid or intended to be paid in exchange for any unlawful controlled substance; or
  • traceable to an exchange or series of exchanges in violation of the State Uniform Controlled Substances Act (“the Act”).

If law enforcement officers in the State of Washington develop “probable cause” that U.S. Currency is involved in drug trafficking, then they might seize the money for forfeiture.

In the State of Washington, the seizure can proceed under either state or federal court. Under state law, once the law enforcement officer seizes U.S. Currency, the agency has fifteen (15) days to notify any apparent owner of the money that the agency intends to seek forfeiture of the money under the statute as provided in RCW 69.50.505(3).

Any person who claims a legal right to the money may request a hearing on the matter, as long as the request is served on the agency within forty-five (45) days of being notified of the intended forfeiture. RCW 69.50.505(5). The person making the verified claim will allege that the money should not be subject to forfeiture under the statute.

At the hearing, the burden of proof is upon the law enforcement agency to establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the property is subject to forfeiture. The agency must prove the currency was more likely than not that the seized money was:

  1. paid or intended to be paid in exchange for any unlawful controlled substance; or
  2. traceable to an exchange or series of exchanges in violation of the Washington UCSA.

Seizures of cash occur at the busiest airports in the State of Washington under either state or federal law.

When the U.S. Currency is seized in the State of Washington by federal agents, then the civil asset forfeiture falls under Rule G(2) of the Supplemental Rules for Admiralty or Maritime Claims and Asset Forfeiture Actions. The federal agent that seize cash at airports might belong to any of the following agencies:

  • Customs and Border Protection (CBP);
  • Homeland Security Investigations (HSI);
  • Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); or
  • local law enforcement agencies.

Under 21 U.S.C. § 88l(a)(6), the money can be seized under federal law if probable cause exists to show it was involved in drug trafficking or a violation of the Controlled Substances Act.

Attorney for Seizure of Bulk Cash in Seattle, WA

Contact us to find out how to get money back after a seizure at the airport. The attorneys at Anderson Carey Williams & Neidzwski, PLLC, including attorney Nicholas J. Neidzwski, help travelers recover their cash and other property after it is seized for civil asset forfeiture under state or federal law.

Although bulk cash seizures are common at the Sea-Tac airport, they also occur at ports of entry, train stations, bus stations, and on the highways throughout the State of Washington.

Our attorneys can help you file a claim for the seized property that opposes any forfeiture action in order to secure the return of the money or other property seized.

We can represent you at a court or administrative hearing to show the lack of probable cause to believe the cash seized was subject to seizure under the Uniformed Controlled Substances Act in the State of Washington.

If a federal agent with Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), or the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized the money, then we can help you immediately file a claim for court action in U.S. District Court.

Call 1 (800) 262-8529 to discuss your case.

Seizures of Cash at Airports in the State of Washington

The busiest airports in the State of Washington for cash seizures include:

  • Seattle–Tacoma International Airport
  • Spokane International Airport (Geiger Field)
  • Bellingham International Airport
  • Tri-Cities Airport
  • Yakima Air Terminal (McAllister Field)
  • Pullman/Moscow Regional Airport
  • Pangborn Memorial Airport
  • Walla Walla Regional Airport

The law enforcement officers seizing cash at the airport in Seattle and the surrounding areas work for federal, state or local law enforcement agencies.

The rules that apply to a civil asset forfeitures at the airport depend on whether the money was seized by a state or federal agency. When the money is seized by a state agency, then the applicable state law applies at the administrative or court hearing. Issues under state law include:

  • whether the officer that seized the U.S. Currency had probable cause to seize the money in the first place; and
  • whether sufficient evidence to forfeit the money now exists.

Under state law, RCW 69.50.505(2)(c) allows seizure of money if a law enforcement officer has probable cause to believe the money was furnished or intended to be furnished in exchange for a controlled substance.

For the purposes of a seizure for forfeiture, probable cause means “the existence of reasonable grounds for suspicion supported by circumstances sufficiently strong to warrant a person of ordinary caution in the belief that the property was used or intended to be used in violation of the controlled substances act.” City of Walla Walla v. $401,333.44, 164 Wn. App. 236, 245, 262 P.3d 1239, 1243 (2011).

Probable cause is to be evaluated based on “the collective knowledge of all the officers working on the airport narcotics detail.” United States v. $129,727.00 U.S. Currency, 129 F.3d 486, 490 (9th Cir. 1997).

Additionally, the training, experience, and expertise of the investigating officers must be considered, “because otherwise innocent-looking conduct may convey different messages to a trained observer.” Id.

The courts in the state of Washington have “long-recognized the validity of drug courier profiles as partial grounds for reasonable suspicion” meriting investigation and even limited detention. United States v. $215,300 U.S. Currency, 882 F.2d 417, 419 (9th Cir. 1989). In fact, the suspect’s “nervousness” coupled with travel to a “well-known center of illegal drug activity” are probative of probable cause.” Id.

The courts have recognized that carrying “an extremely large amount” of money on one’s person or in luggage is, by itself, might be “evidence that the money was furnished or intended to be furnished in return for drugs.” United States v. $29,959.00 U.S. Currency, 931 F.2d 549, 553 (9th Cir.1991).

Being found to be “concealing and lying about the money,” have been determined to be legitimate elements of probable cause to believe money is drug- related. U.S. v. $215,300, supra, 882 F.2d at 419.

The manner of packaging and carrying the money is also a valid element of probable cause when “the narcotics detail recognized this [method of packaging/transport] as an indication of drug-related activity.” U.S. v. $129,727, supra at 491.

The court might also consider whether the cash caused positive alerts from a narcotics detection K9. U.S. v. $215,300, supra. (positive K9 alert was “strong evidence” of connection to narcotics.); see also U.S. v. Dickerson, 873 F.2d 1181 (positive K9 alert “certainly would provide probable cause” to establish a drug connection).

Showing the Money was Not Connected to Narcotics Activity

The laws of the State of Washington are clear that there must be sufficient indicia to connect the money to narcotics activity in particular, as opposed to some generalized suspicion of illegality.

The courts have outlined a variety of factors to consider when deciding whether such a nexus to drugs exists including:

  1. last-minute travel from a drug destination to a drug source location (i.e., trafficker profile characteristics);
  2. with cash packaged in a way recognized by narcotics detectives as a common method used by traffickers to avoid detection;
  3. a history of narcotics arrests; or
  4. a positive alert from a narcotics K9 on the cash he was carrying.

The agency will claim that these characteristics are not generally indicative of random illegal behavior because they are specific, identifiable indicators of narcotics activity in particular.

Is the U.S. Currency Subject to Forfeiture?

If the agency is able to show that the money was properly seized under the statute, the second question is whether the agency can “establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the property is subject to forfeiture.” RCW 69.50.505(5).

In the State of Washington, the preponderance of the evidence means “more likely than not to be true.” In re Dependency of M.S.D., 144 Wn. App. 468, 478, 182 P.3d 978 (2008).

Generally, the existence of probable cause at the time of the seizure is sufficient to justify subsequent forfeiture under the “preponderance of the evidence” standard unless some post-seizure evidence overcomes that initial probable cause.

The law enforcement agency that seized the U.S. Currency will often argue that unless the traveler can present some evidence or testimony to explain the source of the money – evidence or testimony that, had it been provided at the time of seizure, would have overcome probable cause – then the same facts that justified the seizure initially will justify forfeiture now.

Typical Scenario for Seizure of Money at the Seattle SEA-TAC Airport

In order to understand how seizures for forfeitures occur in the State of Washington, consider a typical seizure by detectives with the Port of Seattle Police Department who investigate suspected narcotics-related crimes. These detectives also work closely with agents from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

In fact, several detectives with the Port of Seattle are assigned to the narcotics investigation unit at SeaTac International Airport, where they focus on narcotics investigations and interdiction.

Detectives that focus on the seizure of U.S. Currency often receive narcotics training provided by the International Narcotics Interdiction Association (INIA) or the California Narcotics Officers Association (CNOA).

Training by INIA or CNOA covers drug identification, drug interdiction, detection, money laundering techniques, and schemes, smuggling, and the investigation of individuals and/or organizations involved in the illegal possession, possession for sale, sales, importation, smuggling, cultivation, manufacturing and illicit trafficking of controlled substances.

The narcotics-related experience includes investigation of violations ranging from simple possession of narcotics to complex international conspiracies.

Detectives with the Port of Seattle Police Department also claim to be familiar with common methods of avoiding detection by law enforcement officers during investigations into drug trafficking organizations and drug traffickers including:

  • methods of importing, exporting, storing, concealing, and packaging drugs;
  • methods of transferring and distributing drugs;
  • the use of cellular telephones, telephone pagers, emails, and other electronic means of communication to further their narcotics trafficking activities;
  • the use of numerical codes, code words, counter-surveillance; and
  • methods of packaging, delivering, transferring, laundering, and expatriating drug proceeds.

The Detectives that focus on the seizure of cash at the Seattle Airport have participated in serving narcotics search warrants and arrests for violations of the Uniformed Controlled Substance Act.

Consequently, the detectives claim to have knowledge of the tactics and techniques narcotics traffickers use to manufacture, distribute, and hide narcotics and drug proceeds.

Detectives at the Port of Seattle have experienced in identifying packaging materials, manufacturing items, scales, weapons, documents and papers reflecting the distribution of controlled substances and the identity of coconspirator associates, and papers evidencing the receipt, investment, and concealment of narcotics and proceeds derived from the distribution of controlled substances.

Some of the detectives are Washington State Certified Narcotics Detection Canine Handlers. The detectives receive training from the Washington State Police Canine Association, Pacific Northwest Police Detection Dog Association, the Southern Coast K9 conference, and the American Detection Canine.

The detective and K9 might be certified as a narcotics detection canine team through the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission and meet the requirements set forth under the Washington State Administrative Code. The K9 is trained to alert on the odors of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana/hashish.

The Initial Detention before the Cash Seizure

Bulk cash seizures at airports typically begin when a person enters the airport with a large amount of cash. The cash might be discovered by a TSA screener in the carry on luggage or checked baggage.

Detective look for a certain profile including traveling on a one-way ticket that was recently purchased while having no checked luggage or only one bag.

The officers base their investigation on several assumptions. First, given the legalization of recreational marijuana in the State of Washington, the drug is both cheap and widely available. As a result, Seattle is a common source location for narcotics traffickers.

Large quantities of marijuana and other narcotics are sometimes trafficked from Seattle, Washington, to the eastern and southeastern part of the United States to include other cities where the drugs might be sold for a profit.

Second, detectives assume that narcotics traffickers and their couriers routinely fly on one-way, with last minute tickets because it might help them avoid detection by law enforcement and because the nature of drug trafficking activities makes it difficult to know when drugs will be ready for pickup, or when cash will be ready for delivery.

Purchasers are routinely alerted at the last minute when drugs are available for purchase/pick-up, and purchasers must fly immediately or risk having the drugs sold to someone else.

In contrast, given the economics of air travel, the purchase of full-fare, one-way, last-minute tickets for travel is exceedingly rare among the general public, and is generally easily explained when it does occur (i.e., last-minute business trips, funerals, other emergencies, etc.).

Third, law enforcement officers that seize cash at the airports in the State of Washington assume that drug traffickers use checked bags and carry-on luggage to conceal both narcotics and drug proceeds because drugs and proceeds can be hidden within clothing and throughout the bags to minimize detection.

Luggage used to conceal narcotics and proceeds often contain filler items to include, sheets, towels, new clothing, and clothing that doesn’t fit the passenger. These bags often lack the items seen in regular checked bags including toiletries, undergarments, medications, etc.

Finally, when the detective becomes suspicious that a traveler might be carrying large amounts of cash, the detective might conduct a criminal history check to find out whether the individual suspected of being involved in narcotics trafficking has multiple prior arrests for narcotics-related crimes. The detectives assume that it is common for drug traffickers to have an arrest for a similar type of violation.

Based on the suspicious travel (one-way last minute from a demand location to a source location) and the criminal histories, the detectives might obtain photographs of the suspect and decide to contact or detain them for further investigation.

When Law Enforcement Seizes the Luggage or Locates the Cash

The detectives might first locate the checked bags prior to the flight taking off or prior to them being placed on the baggage carousel after the plane lands.

The detectives might prepare two separate lineups including several random bags selected from the same flight. The detective might walk the K9 to the luggage lineups in order to document a “positive alert” to the odor of narcotics on the checked bags.

Sometimes the detectives will note that the bags are extremely light in comparison with the other checked bags. The weight of the bag might be an indicator that the bag contains filler items and that the bag is being used for the sole purpose of transporting narcotics or drug-related currency.

The detective might then initiate contact with the suspect claiming to approach from the side so as not to impede his progress, identified himself with his badge and credentials, and told him he was not under arrest and was free to leave. The detectives are often dressed in plain clothes, with their weapon secured out of sight.

The detective might then tell the suspect that he is investigating narcotics at Sea-Tac Airport and ask the suspect if he has any narcotics in his possession or his checked bag.

The detective might tell the suspect that a narcotics canine (K9) has alerted to the odor of narcotics on the checked baggage. If the suspect denies being in possession of any narcotics, the detective will attempt to gain “free and voluntary” consent to search of the checked luggage and any carry on bag.

The detective will often when searching the checked bag whether it contains the types of items that legitimate travelers typically carry including toiletries, changes of clothing, undergarments or any of the other items typically carried by legitimate travelers.

In these cases, the detective might claim that the way the bag was packed was consistent with filler items commonly used to transport narcotics and narcotics proceeds out of state.

If the detective finds a large stack of U.S. currency, he will note the denominations of the bills. If the bills are tattered and rubber-banded together, the detective will claim this is consistent with drug trafficking proceeds.

The detective will ask the suspect how much currency is in his possession. If the amount is less than $10,000.00, the detective will note that drug traffickers often carry just under $10,000.00 due to the misconception that federal currency reporting laws apply to domestic travel. Drug traffickers keep the amount just below that threshold to avoid law enforcement and TSA attention.

On the other hand, if the suspect has more than $10,000, then the detective will claim that the large amount of cash is evidence that the money is involved in drug trafficking.

The detective will continue an interrogation and note any unlikely explanations for travel.

Separating the Traveler from his Money

Based on the totality of the investigation to include any suspicious travel plans, any criminal histories specifically for trafficking narcotics, any filler items in the luggage, the odor of marijuana, any unlikely explanation for the travel, excessive amount of currency rubber-banded together, and any K9 alert, the detectives might ask the suspect to walk to a different location for additional questioning.

For suspects at the SEA-TAC airport, the law enforcement officers will often take the traveler to the Port of Seattle Police Department for additional questioning.

The detectives will claim that the suspects agreed and walked freely to the public lobby area or a different location.

The detectives might prepare a line up consisting of several bags of shredded U.S. currency obtained from the U.S. Department of Engraving, and one bag containing the suspect’s currency. Then the detective will claim that the K9 alerted to the suspect’s currency but not to any of the control bags.

The detective will claim that the suspect was extremely nervous, with sweat beading on his forehead during the contact. The detective will claim to know from his experience, that individuals involved in illegal activities often have involuntary responses to stress induced by law enforcement contact including sweating profusely, trembling hands, inability to formulate responses to questions, as well as others, all of which is inconsistent with how legitimate law-abiding travelers react to police presence and questioning.

The detective might ask for the suspect’s phone to confirm the reason for travel. The detective will claim that cell phones are often used to discuss drug trafficking activities and that people not involved in criminal activity are generally cooperative with law enforcement to show law enforcement they are not engaging in criminal activity.

Based on the suspicious travel (last minute one-way travel from a narcotics destination locale to a source locale), any criminal history specifically for narcotics violations, any positive canine alert, the denominations and method of packaging and the filler items located in the checked bag, and the suspect’s inability to explain any of it, the detective might conclude that he has “probable cause” to seize the currency under RCW 609.50.505.

The detective will then seize the currency and provide a “notification of seizure and intended forfeiture (often called the “Seizure Form”). The detective might then conduct a count of the currency or determine the amount through the official bank count.

If your money was seized, then contact Nicholas J. Neidzwski, an experienced civil asset forfeiture attorney at Anderson Carey Williams & Neidzwski, PLLC. Learn more about challenging a civil asset forfeiture case in Bellingham, Seattle, or the surrounding areas in the State of Washington.

Call 360-671-6711.


This article was last updated on Friday, October 23, 2020.

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