Feds hope to keep $19k taken from traveler

CONCORD – The federal government hopes to keep $19,300 that Transportation Security and Drug Enforcement Administration officers took from a California man traveling through Manchester’s airport.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Rabuck filed a drug forfeiture claim Aug. 15 against the money, which the man claims is his life savings, U.S. District Court records show.

While such seizures are common on Interstates and airports around the country, this one is believed to be the first out of the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, Rabuck said Wednesday.

Rabuck filed the case in court after George Atalla Habib notified the DEA that he would dispute the government’s claim to his cash, Rabuck said. Rabuck said court rules prohibit him from discussing details of the case.

“Unfortunately, under the rules we work under, I can’t tell you anything about Mr. Habib that’s not in the complaint,” he said.

According to the government’s claim, TSA agents somehow discovered that Habib was carrying two bundles of $100 bills, totaling $19,300, tucked into his waistband while traveling through the Manchester airport April 3.

Habib took the money out and moved it into a backpack he was carrying after agents found it, the complaint states.

Habib agreed to open the backpack and showed them the money but was unable to say exactly how much cash he was carrying and gave conflicting and equivocating explanations for why he was carrying so much cash, the complaint states.

The cash was wrapped in rubber bands and brown paper currency wrappers, one of which had the name “George” written on it in blue ink, the complaint states.

Habib first said he was carrying somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000 but was “evasive” when TSA and Londonderry police officers asked him to explain why he was carrying the cash, the complaint states.

Based on that exchange, TSA officers contacted Drug Enforcement Administration agents, who questioned Habib further. The complaint details Habib’s explanations:

“First, Habib said he had put a condo on the market 18 months ago but could not sell it in the slow market. Then he said he left two cars in the parking lot of the condo complex and that the sole purpose of his trip was to sell the two cars and furniture for $15,000.

“Habib claimed to have sold the two vehicles for $8,000. He said he had purchased the furniture for $3,000 four years ago and sold it to a friend for $7,000. He did not have a bill of sale or receipt for the items.

“When asked why his friend would pay $7,000 for furniture that was purchased for $3,000 four years ago, Habib explained that the friend was interested in buying the condo. Agents asked why his friend would pay too much for used furniture in an effort to assist him in purchasing a condo that the owner couldn’t sell for 18 months. Habib did not respond to the question.”

After conversing with the DEA, Habib boarded a plane and left for California without his cash, the complaint states.

“DEA agents seized the $19,300.00 in U.S. currency based on Habib’s inconsistent and implausible statements,” the complaint states.

Later that same day, Habib phoned the DEA and said he wanted to apologize for lying to agents, the complaint states. Habib went on to say the money was his life savings, and that he had been keeping it in a safe deposit box at a bank in Lowell, Mass., the complaint states. He said he’d rented the box for four years but later claimed he’d had it since 1993, the complaint states.

Habib said he had kept the money hidden and later lied about it because he was scared, the complaint states. He said he hadn’t just wired the cash because he wanted to avoid reporting it to the government.

Federal law (the 1970 Currency and Foreign Transactions Reporting Act, designed to help detect money laundering) requires financial institutions to file a “Currency Transaction Report” reporting any and all transactions of $10,000 or greater.

Several days later, on April 9, the DEA used a drug-sniffing dog to examine Habib’s cash, and the dog “alerted to the presence of controlled substances on the currency.”

The significance of “alerts” has been a controversial question for the courts over the years. Judges at first considered a dog’s alert strong evidence that money had been used in drug deals, then later began to doubt it after studies showed that a high proportion of U.S. currency has been tainted by contact with illicit drugs.

More recent studies have begun to restore judges’ confidence in drug dogs and their work, however.

A ruling in the Seventh Circuit federal appeals court dealt with a case similar to Habib’s in which agents seized more than $30,000 that Antonio Calhoun was carrying in a girdle around his waist as he tried to board a flight from Chicago to Phoenix.

After hearing testimony about research on cocaine contamination of currency and the work of Dr. Kenneth Furton and Dr. Stefan Rose, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals concluded, “It is likely that trained cocaine-detection dogs will alert to currency only if it has been exposed to large amounts of illicit cocaine within the
very recent past,” and thus, such alerts should be seen as strong evidence of drug

Habib has yet to be served with notice of the court case, although he already dealt with the DEA and knows the matter is pending, Rabuck said. Habib hasn’t filed any response in court as yet, however, and couldn’t be reached for comment.