The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has seized more than $203 million in cash from travelers at O’Hare International Airport since 2000 – more than any other airport in the country, according to a report released Thursday.
And more than $270,000 was seized at Midway Airport during that time, according to the report.
The seizures were done under laws meant to curb drug trafficking and other criminal enterprises, but in most cases there were no charges filed.
Around the country, federal agencies seized more than $2 billion at the nation’s airports between 2000 and 2016, according to the report from the Institute for Justice, a non-profit law firm.
The government can seize cash amounts greater than $10,000 if not properly documented, but around the country no arrests were made 70% of the time, according to the report.
“The theory behind civil forfeiture is that by going after drug dealers’ money, you hit them where it hurts the most by taking away their proceeds,” said Jennifer McDonald, a senior research analyst for the Institute for Justice who authored the report. “And you’re also able to use that money to fight crime.”
“It’s not effective. There’s research that shows that civil forfeiture has no relationship with reducing crime at all, or drugs for that matter.”
The Institute for Justice, which is currently suing Chicago over the city’s impound program, spent three years suing the U.S. government to release the airport seizure data under a public records request.
The organization is also suing the Transportation Security Administration and Drug Enforcement Administration in a federal class-action lawsuit over the seizures.
That lawsuit cited two seizures at O’Hare Airport:
In 2019, DEA agents allegedly seized $16,000 from a man flying to California. The man said the cash was savings, and agents never charged him with a crime, according to the suit.
In 2018, DEA agents allegedly seized $29,000 from the backpack of a man traveling to California to buy a vehicle as part of a truck-flipping business, according to the suit, which said he too was never charged.
A Customs & Border Protection spokesman responded to the seizures at O’Hare Airport with a statement.
“Although there is no limit to the amount of money that travelers may carry when crossing U.S. borders, federal law requires that travelers report currency or monetary instruments in excess of $10,000 to a CBP officer upon entry to or exit from the United States.”
“The most common reason for currency seizures is a failure to comply with reporting requirements, which is a violation of federal law. However, currency seized by CBP at ports of entry has also been connected with bulk cash smuggling, counterfeiting, narcotics trafficking, and other criminal offenses. An individual may petition for the return of seized currency, but the petitioner must prove that the source and intended use of the currency was legitimate.”
McDonald, with the Institute for Justice, said too many innocent people have cash seized.
“They have perfectly innocent reasons for having this amount of cash,” she said. “But law enforcement presume that it is drug proceeds just because there’s a lot of it when carrying any amount of cash is not a crime. … We have really seen this explode since the war on drugs really got going. So really the past, you know, 20-30 years, it’s definitely exploded.”
Elliott Ramos is WBEZ’s data editor. Follow him @ChicagoEl.