Traveler sues to get back $120,000 that agents seized, but FBI says it’s too late

A Vancouver, Washington, man is suing to get back more than $120,000 in cash that federal agents seized from him at the Portland airport, but authorities said this week that the traveler waited too long and “lawfully forfeited” the money.

It’s not illegal to have cash,” said Bill Brandt, traveler Steven Williams’ lawyer, according to KOIN. “They just took the money from him and didn’t charge him with a crime.”

The U.S. Attorney for the District of Oregon, representing the federal agents Williams sued in March, asked that a judge dismiss the lawsuit on Monday and wrote in a motion that the “currency was forfeited when he failed to file a timely claim to contest the forfeiture.”

Williams had been aboard a Phoenix-bound plane that was on the tarmac at Portland International Airport in Oregon on April 11, 2018, when FBI agents entered the cabin. Agents ordered that William get off the flight that was set to leave around 1 p.m. and return to the terminal, according to the federal lawsuit Williams filed against the FBI.

Before Williams boarded the flight, Transportation Security Administration agents had noticed he was carrying about $121,940 in cash in his luggage, according to the lawsuit, which said the money was “for legitimate business purposes.” Brandt said Williams is in the automobile business and was considering buying a Corvette in Arizona, according to KOIN.

TSA agents let Williams through the security checkpoint into the airport, but reported the large amount of money to the FBI, the lawsuit said.

After Williams was removed from the flight, FBI agents questioned him, the lawsuit said. He told them he didn’t have a criminal record.

Agents also ordered Williams to turn over his phone for a search — and when Williams refused to give up the device, he was told “that if he did not comply, the agents would handcuff him and ‘drag him through the airport,’ where they would eventually take his phone and his belongings anyway,” the lawsuit said, adding that “the agents falsely told (Williams) that it was a crime to possess the cash that he was carrying.”

Williams eventually handed over his phone for a search, but only out of fear after agents told him that if he didn’t give in to the search “law enforcement officials would ‘raid [his] home,’ and take his belongings,” the lawsuit said. Agents perused a decade of text messages and data on the phone as Williams told them to stop and asked to be released so he could catch his flight, saying he wasn’t guilty of any crime, according to the lawsuit.

FBI agents told Williams “that if he did not allow them to continue searching through his phone, that they would arrest him and detain him for several days,” the lawsuit said.

Eventually the agents “informed Williams that they found text messages in his phone which they believed were related to the sale of cannabis,” but Williams “explained to the FBI agents that the text messages were not related to any unlawful activity at all, and that the messages were from seven years ago,” the lawsuit said.

Agents said again that it was a crime to carry the cash in his luggage and confiscated the money, telling Williams “that any effort to contest the forfeiture would result in his immediate arrest, and that the police would ‘raid [his] home’ and arrest him if he filed any lawsuit or action to recover his money,” the lawsuit said.

Williams was released after about an hour, wasn’t charged with any crime and still has “a clean criminal record,” the lawsuit said.

He missed his flight.

An FBI spokesperson said the agency doesn’t comment on ongoing lawsuits, KOIN reported in April.

Government lawyers wrote in their motion to dismiss the lawsuit that Williams received a notice of seizure of property dated June 25, 2018, which told Williams he had 35 days to file a claim contesting the seizure of the money — meaning Williams needed to file a claim by Aug. 1 to get his money back, according to the motion.

Williams’ lawyer said he waited past that date out of fear.

“They scared the hell out of him,” Brandt said of the unnamed FBI agents, according to KOIN. “He was told his life would be miserable if he contested any of this.”

It wasn’t until October 2018 that Williams reached out to the FBI through a lawyer seeking his money and was told the agency wouldn’t give it back, Williams’ lawsuit said.

In November, Williams mailed a claim for the money to the FBI and accused the agency of violating his constitutional rights, but the FBI denied his request for the money — and that it had violated his rights — in a December letter, the lawsuit said.

“If I want to go to Phoenix with $120,000 in my pocket, I can and I don’t have to justify it or explain it to anybody,” Brandt said, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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Jared Gilmour is a McClatchy national reporter based in San Francisco. He covers everything from health and science to politics and crime. He studied journalism at Northwestern University and grew up in North Dakota.