How to avoid cash seizures

How to avoid cash seizures by bluesman

As the saying goes, 'cash is king'; in general, it's better to hold cash than to hold notes from debtors, property deeds, or checks. This is as true for gamblers as it is for anyone else. I've repeatedly dealt with unreasonable and ridiculous delays and roadblocks from casinos that can't manage their own programs for credit lines, front money in the form of bank checks, and so forth. If you can manage, it's often easier just to bring cash.

The cost of dealing in cash is that there's some chance of getting it stolen or seized. 'Stolen' is when a private citizen takes it without your consent; 'seized' is when the government takes it without your consent. Most people have a pretty good idea about measures to take to prevent theft; this post is about measures to prevent seizure. Notably, there is no ultimate weapon against theft, just measures that make theft highly unlikely. This post is about measures to make seizure highly unlikely.

As has been suggested on these pages before, you are at some risk of getting cash seized if you are pulled over for a traffic infraction. Here is a program to reduce those risks.

1. Don't get pulled over for a traffic infraction. Why speed? Why not just obey all traffic laws? Unfortunately, this advice is not helpful once you see the flashers in the rear-view mirror.

2. Exercise 'cop comportment.' We all know what casino comportment is: when you're gambling, you know enough not to discuss card-counting at the table and to dress like the kind of person who can throw around black chips (or whatever) without worrying too much about it, right? Just like you're role-playing in a casino, you should be role-playing in an encounter with the cop. You need to think about 'cop comportment' when pulled over.

a. You look like a straight citizen: you're clean, well-groomed, wearing appropriate clothes, etc. You don't have to look preppy; the point is that your look should not convey 'marginal member of society’ or 'drug dealer.' If this is at all unclear, go over to Best Buy and look at how the staff over there dresses and grooms themselves. They aren't wearing suits or anything, but their look conveys that they are part of the professional world. You want to be, as Joe Biden once memorably said when describing one of his senatorial colleagues, 'bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.'

b. Your car looks like the car of a straight citizen. This means: it's free of trash. I have no idea why people (in this case, cops) think that someone with a clean car is a respectable citizen, but they do. Furthermore, you absolutely have no intoxicating beverages or anything that could be used as a weapon (baseball bat, Maglite flashlight), visible or within reach. You are of course not stupid enough to drink and drive. If you have to have anything that is drug-like or weapon-like in your car, it's in your trunk. Ideally, there's nothing in your car visible to the naked eye except:

i. A trash bucket or bag in the passenger's well.

ii. Your traveling stuff (snacks, drinks, papers, etc.) in the passenger's seat, reasonably well-organized.

iii. Your registration and insurance in an envelope on the passenger's seat, or otherwise immediately accessible (more on this below).

iv. And, most importantly, your bankroll isn't in view. See below.

c. As soon as you see the flashing lights, you hit your turn signal or your hazard lights. As soon as there is an opportunity, you pull over and park.

d. As the cop walks up to you, you're doing three things.

i. Your hands are on the wheel in a 10 o'clock, 2 o'clock position. This posture of submission lets the cop see that your hands aren't reaching for a weapon (they are taught to be very concerned about officer safety). More generally, it conveys the message 'I am a straight citizen who is intent on following the rules for traffic detainment, and I am eager to cooperate fully.' (In fact, whether to cooperate fully is a decision that has to be made on a moment-by-moment basis; some requests, like those to give consent for search, should never be granted, but you're not losing anything at all by initially conveying that you're a reasonable person who isn't going to cause any trouble for cops. You're simply, with this posture, communicating respect.)

ii. You're glancing to make sure that your license, registration, and insurance data are easily accessible.

iii. You're formulating your story. Your story is simply: where are you coming from, where are you going, and why? Ideally, your story is true and credible (in a boring, middle-class sense). It should not be hard to have a story at hand that answers these three questions. A model story involves driving from one large city to another to meet a family member, friend, or business associate. As you get closer to a casino, an appointment to meet someone in a restaurant there for a drink or a meal becomes credible. So, for instance: If you get pulled over heading east on the Ohio Turnpike, your story that you are driving to Las Vegas is not credible. If you get pulled over while crossing the border into California, your story that you are coming from Florida is not credible. If you get pulled over at 3 a.m., your story that you are heading to a business meeting is not credible. (Maybe a story that you're picking up a buddy at a Greyhound bus station is more credible.)

3. Understand degrees of detainment (also called detention). I have no interest in writing a legal treatise on this stuff, but it's helpful to understand the idea of degrees of detainment (I'm taking the liberty of expressing legal concepts here in a highly casual and imprecise sense). Your goal is to end the encounter. The cop's goal is to prolong the encounter, which necessarily means escalating the degree of detainment. Another way to put this is that in order to prolong the encounter, the cop must make certain things happen. Your goal is to make sure those things don't happen. Any encounter with the police is either going to end soon or escalate soon: your goal is to deter escalation and end the encounter. You might remember that cops are, in one way or another, often rewarded for discovering contraband and offensive behavior, so your goal is to not supply the cop anything to discover.

a. The lowest degree of detainment is no detainment at all. An example is if you're walking down the street and encounter a cop. The cop could ask you what time it is, in just the same way that an ordinary citizen could; just as with an ordinary citizen, you're under no obligation to reply. However, if you've been pulled over, you've already reached a more unpleasant degree of detainment, namely:

b. Detainment necessary to write out a citation. You got pulled over, so you're at this stage of detention. The cop's goal here is to get you to do something suspicious so that he can then detain you longer and prolong his investigation. Your goal is to do nothing suspicious so that you can end the encounter. The cop can't detain you any longer than is necessary to complete the investigation of the traffic stop: that is, you can be detained long enough to check your car and DL against records, write a citation, etc. Note that it is within the cop's rightful powers to search you and the 'grabbable area' that you're near for weapons (this is where the officer safety justification comes into play). At this point, you are in minor danger of a request to search your car.

c. Detainment based on suspicious appearance or conduct. The cop wants to get you to say something incoherent or silly (suspicion of drug use!) or to appear nervous and sweaty (suspicion of guilt!) or to make furtive movements (suspicion of officer lack of safety!), etc. If you say or do something that can be portrayed as causing reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct, this is a ticket to the place you don't want to go: further investigation, possibly including involuntary search. As law nerds will point out, it's not just that the officer is in a suspicious mood; rather, the suspect has to cause reasonable suspicion. This is the stage that you want to avoid getting to and the stage where significant problems will likely occur.

d. Probable cause for arrest / probable cause for or consent to search/statement that you're carrying a lot of money, etc. I am going to dump a lot of stuff into this category; it's basically the Game Over, Man! Game Over! category. This is when you say 'Sure officer, you can search my car!' or 'Yeah, I'm carrying $20,000 in cash, but that isn't illegal, is it?' or 'I admit it, my dead wife's corpse is in the trunk.' This advice will not help you once you have reached this stage. No intelligent person should have to enter it.

4. Understand your goal. The goal in gambling is to walk out of a casino with more money than you walked in with. The goal of police interactions is to end the encounter with an intact bankroll. So the goal here is to remain polite to the cop who has pulled you over while giving him when at all possible, no information at all. Err on the side of calling the cop 'Sir' or 'Officer.'

a. Unfortunately, you're ill-advised to immediately say 'I'm not going to talk to you without my lawyer present.’ Or pretty much ever. That's not the way normal people behave. Don't emulate Tony Soprano.

b. If you're asked for your license and registration, you say 'Yes sir' and hand them over. If you're asked if you know why you were pulled over, you respectfully say 'Why's that, officer?' (Note that you've admitted nothing here.) If you're asked where you're going, etc., you already have a one-sentence answer ready. If you're asked if you know how fast you were going, you adopt a concerned look on your face and say 'How fast was I going?' You don't want to go much farther than this in terms of volunteering information. If you're accused of a traffic violation (running a light, speeding, improper lane change), I think it's perfectly OK to look the cop straight in the eye and say 'Officer, I didn't realize. I am so sorry. I don't have any points on my license and I am usually a better driver than that.' (Assuming, of course, you don't have any points on your license.)

c. That was the easy part, now we get to the slightly hard part. At a certain point, even straight citizens are allowed to demonstrate some impatience with the police. Your goal here is to end the interrogation while demonstrating that you're a straight citizen. (A story that invites questions 'involving, say, picking up a buddy at the Greyhound bus station 'may be dangerous for this reason. The fact that you're driving to Chicago doesn't, as such, invite questions.) So let's assume that the encounter continues and that it moves beyond a discussion of your driving. If you get asked about your future or past destinations, it's perfectly OK to pause for a second, cock your head, ask the officer to repeat the question, and act faintly surprised or irritated that the conversation is continuing. All this does is convey that you have better things to do than explaining your perfectly legal conduct to an officer of the law. But this is just preparation for the really hard part. In my opinion, what you want to do in the situations described below is end the conversation as soon as possible. Here is how.

d. The (first) really hard part is that the cop may invite you to start conversationally fencing with him about your potentially criminal conduct. Suppose you are asked whether there are any drugs in the car. This, in my opinion, is your opportunity to end the conversation. You are allowed to demonstrate some irritation while remaining completely polite. I think it's probably perfectly OK to say 'Officer, I understand you're doing your job. But I don't have anything illegal in the car, I have things to do, and I want to leave. Can I go?' Once you've reached this point (think of it this way: the officer works on advancing degrees of detainment, so you're allowed to work on decreasing degrees of friendliness), it is unlikely you will need to say anything besides this in response to future questions. Repeat the last two or three clauses as necessary.

e. The (second) really hard part is that you may be asked to give consent to search your car. You'll probably be asked some tricky question in the form of 'You wouldn't mind if I searched your car, would you?' (Note the high ambiguity of either a yes or no answer in this context.) Again, I think you're allowed to act irritated while remaining polite. It is typical for straight well-educated citizens to assert their rights and for them not to be 100% deferential towards police. I think, again, it's perfectly OK to say 'Officer, I don't have anything illegal in the car, I have things to do, and I want to leave. Can I go?' (If asked why you decline a search, do not go into detail about your reasons. 'Because it's my right and this is America' ought to do it.) Again, once you reach this point, you probably don't have to say anything else except to continue to ask if you can leave.

f. The (third) really hard part is if the officer wants to have an extended discussion with you on (for example) why you are picking up a friend at the Greyhound bus station at 4 in the morning. At some point, it's OK to say 'Officer, what does this have to do with why you pulled me over?' He'll stay quiet once you say that, of course, in the hope that you change the subject (namely, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the detention). Don't feel obliged to break the silence. He'll eventually come up with another question, but at a certain point you can move into your 'Officer, I understand you're doing your job. But I have things to do, and I want to leave. Can I go?'

g. The (fourth) really hard part is if you get ordered out of your car. That's not the problem as such: you simply get out of the car. The problem is if the officer then coolly gets into your car and starts looking around. I think it's perfectly OK to raise a bit of a fuss here. 'Get out of my car, please. I don't consent to a search.' Repeat as necessary. If questioned about the reasons for your desire that the officer gets out of your car, resort to your invocation of 'Because it's my right and this is America.'

h. The strategy here is clear: be polite, admit nothing that is remotely material or especially interesting, and if the officer signals that he wants to interrogate you in the guise of a conversation (or just starts pawing through your stuff), resort to a blanket statement like the above that ends the conversation. Note that it's probably not necessary to explain or provide a peroration on your right to silence, etc.: if you're asked a question you don't want to answer, there's no need to explain that you don't want to answer, discuss your constitutional liberties, etc. Instead, just say 'Officer, I have things I want to do; am I free to leave?' It almost doesn't matter what you were asked. Remember, you're a polite, straight citizen who is used to polite and mutually deferential cop encounters, and because the cop has broken that convention, you are just a little bit irked.

i. The only thing that all this stuff signals to the cop is that you know your rights and that you've conveyed a convincing narrative that you can't be seduced into surrendering them. It doesn't follow that you want to inform police that you know your rights: they're likely to take that as a challenge. The fact that you've demonstrated your lack of complete compliance doesn't mean that the cop won't try to get back at you in some way, probably with manufactured suspicion or a request to search if that hasn't happened yet.

5. The most important section of this post by far: Where's your bankroll?

a. Your bankroll is either in the glove box or (better) in the trunk of your car. (Again, the police are justified, for reasons of officer safety, in searching you and whatever is in your 'grabbable area.' This suggests it's really dumb to keep your bankroll on you in a waist pouch or under your seat.) It's more of a hassle to keep it in the trunk, but it's worth it. You only need it, when traveling, in the vicinity of the casino, right? On a gambling trip: just pull into an empty lot five blocks from the casino, take out part or all of your bankroll, and then drive into the casino parking lot. The odds that someone will be watching you get access to your bankroll and then follow you to the casino without your knowledge are very small.

b. More importantly, your bankroll is in a locked and zippered bag. (There are perfectly good ones on sale at for $18 or so: search 'lock bag.' Its dimensions suggest that it would conveniently hold $100,000 in $100 bills, and I hope that more prosperous times will someday permit me to test this theory.) In my view, this is the most cost-effective purchase a capable AP could ever make, with the exception of a Green Chip membership, of course. The key to the bag is on your keyring. You are just finishing reading the most important paragraph of the most important section of this post.

c. You're smart enough to have $200 or so in your wallet for gas and food and impulse purchases, right? You're not dumb enough to pay fast-food purchases directly out of your bankroll, right? Keep some petty cash in your wallet!

6. What to do when disaster strikes. Namely: search happens.

a. Sure, it's possible that the officer is having an ornery day and that he'll come up with some justification to search your car without your consent. It's possible that he may not like the way you part your hair and call over a K9 unit to sniff your car, under the drug-dog exception to the Fourth Amendment. It's possible that he might find your locked bag. Then you've got a problem, but he's got a bigger one.

b. Your problem is that he's going to ask you to unlock it (or he might just say 'Give me the key') and you're going to have to tell him 'no.' Or better, just look at him in an offended manner and say nothing if possible. He knows quite well that you're not obliged to follow his orders when he wants your help in a search. (You also have a perfect right to refuse to answer any questions about what's in the bag. In fact, however, when he asks you what's in it, you're not going to explain your rights. Instead, you're going to say 'I'm not carrying anything illegal, and I'd like to go.' If he says 'You can go, but I'm keeping this,' your response is 'No sir, not without a receipt; otherwise, you'll be committing theft. Give me my property, please.' Maybe he will. This is your last-ditch strategy. It's possible that he may decide that he's only supposed to feel it up for crack rocks and things of that nature.) The cop, lucky for you, has a much bigger problem: his problem is that he's going to have to convince a judge to issue a warrant to open the bag without your consent, and he also knows this (a) likely won't happen and (b) writing out an affidavit will certainly be a pain in the ass. Here are the two balancing factors: Does he really want to go through the hassle of this? (No.) Does he really want to win this encounter so he doesn't lose face? (Yes.) Ideally, he's going to get frustrated and give up. But assuming he doesn't: by the time you've followed the cop to the station in preparation for getting a receipt for your seized property, you've already gotten your lawyer on the phone, right?

c. Opinions will vary on this, but if we get to the point that your car is searched without your consent (that is, if your car is searched, because you are never consenting, right?), I'd consider recording the whole process with my cell phone. If asked why I was recording the event, I'd say 'Because my wife will never believe that this happened.' And if threatened with arrest for recording (almost certainly an empty threat), I'd swallow hard and keep recording. Your mileage may vary. If you don't feel comfortable doing this, at least try getting your lawyer on the phone as the search is taking place. Maybe you can tell the cop that your lawyer wants to speak with him, and your lawyer will feel comfortable asking the cop what the probable cause is for the search. Maybe you can get your old college roommate on the phone and ask the cop if he'll speak to him, and he'll feel comfortable asking the cop what the probable cause is for the search.

7. Avoiding a bad epilogue. You've almost escaped. Your bankroll is safe and the cop says you can go.

a. Don't let the cop play Columbo on you. Remember how Peter Falk would end his conversation with the suspect and then say something to the effect of 'Hey, I have just one more question for you.' This trick works all the time. Hell, it's worked on me. If the cop says 'You can go, but I just have one more question,' your answer is (as politely as possible) 'You said I could go, right? Bye!' This is said while leaving. The goal of the reinitiated conversation is to make you feel obligated to stay; don't stay when you're told you can go.

b. Drive off slowly and respectfully. Pull in at the next gas station and calm down, if necessary. Buy yourself some junk food. You earned it (assuming, that is, that your bankroll is intact).

8. TSA: Flying with cash.

a. In my experience, TSA will follow their own rules, which is that the detection of money is not as such suspicious or demonstrative of anything bad. There used to be a severe TSA problem: there isn't one now. Just don't keep anything else interesting with your money as it goes through the scanner. The locked bag is helpful here as well, but more for peace of mind than anything else. If TSA wanted me to open the bag, I'd probably grit my teeth and open it. Unless I didn't really want to catch my flight anyway, given that what they'd do if you wouldn't comply is send you home and forget about you.

9. Tangentially related issues.

a. Give very serious thought to where you keep your ID at all times. If you're playing anonymously, there is generally no reason at all to carry either your wallet or your ID in a casino. If asked why you don't want to show ID at cashout, just say 'I left my wallet in the car' (not plausible unless you're near a tollway) or 'I'd never bring my ID into a casino.' (Don't say what I say, which is that a good friend of mine killed himself after he was the victim of identity theft. It is totally true, but you can't have my excuse. It's mine; he was a dear friend; he'd be very happy that I was exploiting his memory to resist casino authoritarianism.)

b. Similarly, there are very strong reasons to keep any ID documents far away from your bankroll. Think about it.

c. In general, I think it's better to keep your wallet in your car when you're in a casino. But sometimes you may want to carry your ID into the casino. Sometimes it's better to keep it somewhere it can't be easily found. Hint: what articles of clothing (besides pants, shirts, and underwear) do people almost always wear into a casino, in which an ID could easily and safely be stored?

d. This post is about measures to prevent seizure. Measures to prevent theft involve safety deposit boxes. There's a bank near you with safety deposit boxes, right? Luckily, although there is casino comportment and cop comportment, and perhaps even TSA comportment, there is no such thing as 'safety deposit box comportment.' The day after you get home, get out of bed and drive over to the bank, you card-counting slacker! You don't even have to brush your teeth, for God's sake.

I will close by saying that I'm not your lawyer and this isn't legal advice. Oh, also: it is highly impractical not to pay your taxes (and arguably quite immoral), no matter how much it stings. I wish you good luck and good cards.


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