Here’s how police are allowed to seize your money at Atlanta’s airport

Flying from Atlanta to California is among the reasons drug agents will use to seize money without finding any drugs. Part two in a series.
In Plane Sight, Part 2
Published: Nov. 8, 2023 at 1:07 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 9, 2023 at 8:20 AM EST
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - Clayton County Police seized a connecting passenger’s money in part because his bags had “the odor of marijuana.” There were no drugs in his bags.

The car broker was changing planes at Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport when he was questioned by drug task force officers as he boarded a flight to Sacramento, California. Police seized $23,850 in cash from his bags even though they found no drugs inside.

In the complaint for forfeiture in the 2020 incident, a prosecutor wrote the man was flying “from Atlanta, a known drug hub city, to Sacramento, California, a known drug source city.” Atlanta News First Investigates has found similar phrases used by both local police and federal agents to justify taking money from passengers based on their destinations.

Court records show the car broker “admitted to smoking marijuana prior to the incident.” Not included in the complaint is the passenger had flown to Atlanta from Washington, DC, where recreational marijuana use is completely legal.

“There was nothing illegal or suspicious in the smell of marijuana on the Claimant’s belongings,” his attorney wrote in their claim for his money’s return. “If the Claimant had smoked marijuana, he had legally done so in another jurisdiction … no basis for a seizure in Georgia.”

Atlanta News First Investigates is not naming the passenger because he was not charged with a crime.

The car broker provided buyers’ orders for vehicles he had sold to prove his money was earned legitimately. Such deals often involve cash because the final price is negotiated in person where a cashier’s check may not be practical.

After the passenger filed proof with the court, the Clayton County District Attorney’s Office agreed to return most of his money, according to a consent agreement on file with the Clayton County Superior Court.

The county returned $17,887.50 of the car broker’s own money back to him. The county kept $5,962.50, which was forfeited as part of the consent agreement.

Records show the nearly $6,000 of the passengers’ money was split between the DA’s office and the airport interdiction unit of the Clayton County Police Department. Neither agency agreed to an interview with Atlanta News First Investigates.

Searches usually come up empty

In these civil forfeiture cases, as Atlanta News First Investigates reported, drugs are rarely found, and the passengers usually are not arrested or charged with crimes. In our review of more than a year of seizures from 2020 and 2021, passengers rarely got all their money back even after filing a claim with receipts.

The Clayton County Police Department runs its own airport interdiction task force in addition to the federal task force that Atlanta News First Investigates tracked down at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. All terminals and concourses of the airport are in Clayton County.

In Plane Sight | Series from Chief Investigator Brendan Keefe

Drug agents search passengers at the gate in what they call “cold consent encounters.” Those passengers have already cleared Transportation Security Administration (TSA) magnetometers and baggage screening.

County task force officers stop passengers on the jet bridge, usually on flights to California, according to logs Atlanta News First Investigates obtained through open records.

Of the 361 jet bridge searches we reviewed for a 16-month period in 2020 and 2021, only seven percent involved a seizure of cash or drugs. The other 93 percent resulted in no seizure or arrests.

Several Black entertainers, actors, and film industry creators have complained they were profiled by Clayton County officers for warrantless searches, including Emmy-winning actor Jean Elie and comedians Clayton English and Eric André. The county has denied wrongdoing in court filings.

Atlanta News First Investigates pulled court files for cases where the drug task force seized money but did not make arrests. The reasons for those forfeitures, filed with the Clayton County Superior Court, include that the money that was “concealed within clothing.”

“There is no method of transporting cash or storing cash that police will not say triggers probable cause,” said Dan Alban, an attorney with the Institute for Justice. “This person was wearing his shoes on his feet, and that’s something that’s a common characteristic of drug traffickers. Of course he was, because that’s how everyone wears shoes. This guy had money in an envelope, and that’s a characteristic of drug traffickers. It’s also a characteristic of how many other people transport cash.”

The Institute for Justice has represented passengers and successfully sued federal agencies and local governments to get their money back.

Atlanta is a ‘drug hub city’

In both federal and Clayton County court cases, task force agents called Atlanta part of a known drug trafficking route and used the mere fact someone was flying from Atlanta to a California city to argue seized money came from drug trafficking.

Flying from “Atlanta, a known drug hub city, to Los Angeles, California, a known drug source city,” is a typical phrase Atlanta News First Investigates found in the complaints filed by the government to justify civil forfeiture.

An attorney representing another passengers told the court, “The State is attempting to force Claimant to prove a negative.” On the spot in the airport and in these court challenges, passengers are often required to prove their cash was earned legitimately. Sometimes they’re asked to pull up bank statements at the gate to show a matching withdrawal.

“The State is attempting to require Claimant to prove that his property was not acquired from criminal conduct,” an attorney told the Clayton County Superior Court judge.

The Clayton County drug task force logs show they spend more time checking the carry-on bags of departing passengers — about 60 percent of the searches — even though they find more drugs and make more arrests using drug dogs to sniff checked luggage from arriving passengers.

Those same records show the drug task force finds far more money on departing passengers, usually when they don’t find drugs.

TSA alerts police when screeners find money

Court records, inspector general reports, and the TSA manual show screeners are alerting police and federal agents when they detect large amounts of cash in passengers’ bags.

TSA Directive 100.4 tells screeners, “Traveling with large amounts of currency is not illegal,” but then goes on to say that “quantity” can be a sign of criminal activity, along with “concealment.” Travel experts recommend concealing large amounts of cash to avoid theft, but that could flag your money as a “related to criminal activity,” according to the TSA.

The rest of Directive 100.4 conflates the regulations for traveling internationally and domestically: “TSA should notify Customs and Border Protection and/or law enforcement authorities pursuant to its local standard operating procedures that the individual possesses a sum of currency that appears to exceed $10,000.”

It’s legal to fly into or out of the United States with more than $10,000 but international passengers are required to declare that cash. There’s no such disclosure requirement for domestic passengers flying state to state.

The Department of Justice Inspector General noted sometimes TSA screeners are paid informant fees by the DEA. “TSA officers were receiving kickbacks from DEA for identifying travelers that they thought fit some profile that was at a high risk or higher risk of being involved in criminal activity,” Alban said.

‘Civil forfeiture is actually easier than criminal forfeiture’

Why are drug agents seizing millions of dollars at the airport without making arrests?

“Perversely, it’s actually easier to forfeit someone’s property from an innocent person who is not charged or convicted of a crime than it is from a criminal defendant who actually is convicted of a crime,” Alban said.

“Civil forfeiture is actually easier than criminal forfeiture,” he said. “In criminal forfeiture, which happens after a criminal conviction, the government is required to provide the criminal defendant with all of the protections that a criminal defendant receives in our criminal justice system.”

The same is not true with administrative or civil forfeiture.

The money is arrested instead of the suspect. The burden of proof is not “beyond a reasonable doubt,” but “clear and convincing.” With administrative forfeiture, the initial claim for the money is filed with attorneys for the agency that seized it.

About 90 percent of forfeiture cases are never reviewed by a judge, according to the Institute for Justice.

Passengers rarely get all their money back, even after presenting proof it was earned legitimately.

Alban said, “There is a strong incentive for law enforcement to try to get as much money as it can into what I would call a slush fund. They can spend the money on whatever they want. And that encourages them to spend the money pursuing more forfeiture dollars. Essentially, it is a self-perpetuating, revenue-generating machine.”

This is an ongoing Atlanta News First investigation.


If there’s something you would like Atlanta News First Chief Investigator Brendan Keefe to look into, email him directly at

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