WASHINGTON — A professional gambler from Las Vegas who had $97,000 of her cash temporarily seized by a federal agent during a stopover at the Atlanta airport was told by the Supreme Court on Tuesday that if she wanted to sue, she must do it in Georgia.
In a 9-0 decision, the justices ruled that her Nevada lawyer had filed her lawsuit in the wrong place.
Since the "relevant conduct occurred entirely in Georgia," the federal agent must be sued in his home state, Justice Clarence Thomas said.
Gina Fiore, the gambler who accuses agent Anthony Walden of falsely portraying her and her partner as drug couriers, said she was not ready to give up the legal battle.
"Yes. We plan to continue the lawsuit in Georgia," she said in an email responding to the decision.
The case illustrated one of the many dangers and difficulties of carrying large amounts of cash.
Fiore and her then-partner, Keith Gibson, flew to casinos in Atlantic City and Puerto Rico in 2006, and carried with them tens of thousands of dollars in cash. This was their "gambling bank."
Upon leaving San Juan, they had $97,000 in cash. They were stopped and questioned at the airport, and their bags were checked. The agents there also alerted officials in Atlanta, where they were scheduled to change planes for a flight home to Las Vegas.
Walden, a police officer in Covington, Ga., was working at the airport, where he was deputized as an agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
According to Fiore's complaint, Walden and another DEA agent approached them at a departure lounge with a drug-sniffing dog. Fiore and Gibson explained they were professional gamblers and showed identifications and receipts from their hotels and casinos.
But the agents didn't believe them and seized their cash — all of it. As the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals noted, the agents even "denied their request … for taxi fare upon their arrival" at the Las Vegas airport.
Fiore and Gibson hired a lawyer and sent further documentation to the DEA. When the matter was transferred to the agency's headquarters, officials concluded the two gamblers were "squeaky clean," and the agency had no basis for seizing their money.
Seven months after the airport incident, the DEA offered to return the cash if they agreed not to sue. Fiore refused the offer, but the agency returned the money. She then sued Walden in federal court in Las Vegas, alleging that the agent had filed a false and misleading "probable cause" statement that portrayed the pair as possible drug couriers.
Her lawsuit has yet to be heard, let alone decided. A federal judge in Las Vegas dismissed the claim against Walden on the grounds it was filed in the wrong place. The 9th Circuit Court, in several divided opinions, allowed the suit to go forward in Nevada.
The Supreme Court took up Walden’s appeal and ruled Fiore must sue Walden in Georgia.
Jeffrey Bucholtz, a Washington lawyer who represented Walden at the behest of the Justice Department, said his client was still working as a police officer but no longer as a DEA agent at the airport.
"Officer Walden very much disputes that he did anything wrong in this case," Bucholtz said.