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Will Media Coverage Finally Stop Government From Grabbing Your Property in Forfeiture?

 Finally, the public is waking up to the wrong that is civil forfeiture laws – something that we’ve been monitoring here since April 2010. There’s still lots to be done, but there is reason to be optimistic that the government’s ability to grab your property without any criminal wrongdoing even being alleged on your part may be stopped.  

New York Times Expose Gets National Media Attention

This week, there’s been lots of media coverage spring-boarding off of last Saturday’s New York Times expose by Shaila Dewan entitled, “Law Lets I.R.S. Seize Accounts on Suspicion, No Crime Required.” That story delved into the Internal Revenue Service taking of around $30,000 from the bank account of a small cafe owner who was not being investigated for a crime much less arrested or convicted of one.

Seems her decades’ long habit of depositing her cash proceeds from her little Mexican restaurant (where she only takes cash, no credit cards) down the street at her bank rather than keep money there in the restaurant till triggered a report to the federal government from her bank.

Next thing that Carole Hinders knows, there are IRS agents introducing themselves to her and explaining that they’ve just seized all her money out of her account.  Her account has been gutted before they even introduced themselves to her.  Surprise!

Mind you, Ms. Hinders isn’t an evildoer. No one alleges that she’s done any criminal wrong. She has not been charged with any legal violation whatsoever.

However, because she had been depositing less than $10,000 into her checking account on a routine basis, the federal government was able to grab her cash under federal civil forfeiture laws.

As Forbes reports, this has been happening all over the country — legitimate businesspeople, law-abiding folk, are having all their money taken from them by the federal government without warning.  Carole Hinders has lots of company here.  

What Is Going On? Forfeiture Allows Government to Take Your Property Without a Hearing

We’ve written about this horror before, see our earlier explanatory post “THE FORFEITURE EPIDEMIC: WHEN THE GOVERNMENT JUST TAKES YOUR PROPERTY AND KEEPS IT.

There’s also a great report published by the Institute for Justice, entitled “Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture,” placed for your convenience in the Michael Lowe Digital Library.

State and Local Governments Do This, Too: Forfeiture Happens Everywhere

Civil forfeiture laws are different from criminal laws that allow the government to seize assets and property that law enforcement has probable cause to believe was used in a crime or is the profit from criminal activity. Civil forfeiture laws allow the government to seize property when no criminal charges are pending whatsoever.

In this kind of forfeiture, the government focuses upon the property not upon the person. They proceed under the civil standard of proving their case with a “preponderance of the evidence,” which is much (MUCH) lower than the criminal court’s “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

If the government can provide evidence to connect the property with a legal violation, then they can grab that property from its owner. In Carol Hinders’ situation, her habit of depositing cash in steady amounts that were under $10,000 triggered a required bank report under federal structuring laws.

Essentially, since her restaurant cash deposits trickled into her account in a manner similar to ways a criminal organization might deposit cash to avoid a $10,000 deposit report to the Internal Revenue Service, the government swooped in and took her money.

Next step? It’s up to restaurant owner Carol Hinders and others in her position to fight to get her money back. Not fair, is it?

Media Spotlight on State Forfeiture Grabs of Property

The Texas Observer published its own excellent expose of Texas civil forfeiture hijinks back in May 2014, “When it Comes to Civil Forfeiture in Texas, You Have No Property Rights.

Their story includes the fight of a used car dealer who had to fight to prove his right to a pickup truck after the cops grabbed it in an arrest of the truck’s driver. The driver was making payments on the truck, he didn’t own it. To get the truck back after the loan payments stopped coming in, the car dealer had to file a lawsuit against the Houston Police Department.

The Texas Observer coverage also discusses a case we’ve posted about before, where cops in Tehana, Texas, would police pull people over and then the prosecutor would threaten them with criminal charges if they didn’t waive rights to the property seen in their cars during the traffic stop. Sweet deal for them while it lasted. See, ‘’COP WATCH: TENAHA POLICE HIGHWAY ROBBERY SCHEME SUBJECT OF FED CLASS ACTION SUIT.”

The Fort Worth Star Telegram had a nice story this spring, too, about Texas forfeiture escapades in “Special report: Guilty until proven innocent.”

Texas is far from alone here.  Consider the spotlight put on the Pennsylvania forfeiture process of “legalized robbery” by John Oliver on “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver”:

New York Times’ Expose Results in IRS News Release: No More “Legal Source Structuring” – Maybe.

The New York Times’ expose has been forceful enough to have the IRS issue a press statement that they are not going to pursue “legal source” structuring cases in the future. Sorta.

Read the statement by Richard Weber, Chief of the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Department here, where he states:

I.R.S.-C.I. will no longer pursue the seizure and forfeiture of funds associated solely with “legal source” structuring cases unless there are exceptional circumstances justifying the seizure and forfeiture and the case has been approved at the director of field operations (D.F.O.) level.

Time will tell what those “exceptional circumstances” will be.

Meanwhile, state and local agencies across the country apparently can continue on with civil forfeitures and grab property just like always.

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