Shaila Dewan reports at The New York Times that the IRS has seized the assets of law-abiding citizens without even an allegation of criminal conduct. The government can keep the money, and its victims have to prove their innocence to get it back.
On Thursday, in response to questions from The New York Times, the I.R.S. announced that it would curtail the practice, focusing instead on cases where the money is believed to have been acquired illegally or seizure is deemed justified by “exceptional circumstances.”
Richard Weber, the chief of Criminal Investigation at the I.R.S., said in a written statement, “This policy update will ensure that C.I. continues to focus our limited investigative resources on identifying and investigating violations within our jurisdiction that closely align with C.I.’s mission and key priorities.” He added that making deposits under $10,000 to evade reporting requirements, called structuring, is still a crime whether the money is from legal or illegal sources. The new policy will not apply to past seizures.
The I.R.S. is one of several federal agencies that pursue such cases and then refer them to the Justice Department. The Justice Department does not track the total number of cases pursued, the amount of money seized or how many of the cases were related to other crimes, said Peter Carr, a spokesman.
But the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based public interest law firm that is seeking to reform civil forfeiture practices, analyzed structuring data from the I.R.S., which made 639 seizures in 2012, up from 114 in 2005. Only one in five was prosecuted as a criminal structuring case.The Washington Post reports:
Police agencies have used hundreds of millions of dollars taken from Americans under federal civil forfeiture law in recent years to buy guns, armored cars and electronic surveillance gear. They have also spent money on luxury vehicles, travel and a clown named Sparkles.
The details are contained in thousands of annual reports submitted by local and state agencies to the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program, an initiative that allows local and state police to keep up to 80 percent of the assets they seize. The Washington Post obtained 43,000 of the reports dating from 2008 through a Freedom of Information Act request.The Post also reports:
The documents offer a sweeping look at how police departments and drug task forces across the country are benefiting from laws that allow them to take cash and property without proving a crime has occurred. The law was meant to decimate drug organizations, but The Post found that it has been used as a routine source of funding for law enforcement at every level.
A leading House lawmaker asked Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Friday to provide an array of documents and data relating to the Justice Department’s role in tens of thousands of cash and property seizures made in recent years by state and local police under federal civil asset forfeiture laws.
The request by Rep. F. James “Jim” Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism, homeland security and investigations, is part of an inquiry into the billions of dollars in seizures made through the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program, the federal government’s largest asset forfeiture initiative.
“The implications on civil liberties are dire,” he said in the letter to Holder. “The right to own property is a fundamental right implicitly recognized in the Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. I also believe that it is a human right.”
Sensenbrenner’s request follows a Washington Post investigation that found that 61,998 cash seizures have been made on U.S. highways and elsewhere since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks without search warrants or indictments through the Equitable Sharing Program, totaling more than $2.5 billion.
The Homeland Security and Justice departments and other federal agencies received $800 million of that total; state and local authorities kept the rest.
Friday’s letter follows similar requests by Sensenbrenner for documents from the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In those letters, Sensenbrenner sought details about how challenges from cash and property owners are handled.