Binding the Civil Forfeiture Bully

School BullyThe Institute for Justice (IJ) is one of our favorite champions of freedom. Earlier this week the Internal Revenue Service handed IJ one of their fastest victories ever.

Within hours of IJ filing a lawsuit, the IRS returned nearly $70,000 in funds it had exploited in civil forfeiture proceedings from the Vocatura family, third-generation bakery owners in Norwich, Connecticut.

For those of you not in the know, civil forfeiture is a process by which government agencies can seize private assets merely on the suspicion of wrong-doing. The government can take, and keep, private property without ever bringing charges against whomever the property was taken from. For many property owners, there is no conviction required. No due process. No day in court due to the cost and judicial proceedings required to force the government to return the seized property. And agencies have behaved badly – using the funds for anything from travel, banquets, boats, equipment, political consultants, and in some cases, even illegal activity such as buying alcohol, marijuana, and prostitutes.

More information about civil forfeiture, or “policing for profit” as IJ calls it – including a video, here.

The IRS is not the only agency engaging in such behavior. Other agencies from local to federal law enforcement also use the practice.

Not only does civil forfeiture fly in the face of fairness for many Americans, but we believe it to be legally sanctioned criminal behavior. Think of the classic school bully who upends a kid in order to take his lunch money. That’s the essence of civil forfeiture, except instead of a maladjusted school yard bully, the individual faces the full weight and power of the government.

The US Constitution clearly and plainly states in the Fourth Amendment, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

“Shall not be violated” is about as plain as it gets, folks.

Yet the total value of private property taken from individual citizens is alarming: an estimated $4.5 billion at the federal level alone in 2014 according to an IJ analysis.

Let’s return to the Vocatura family and their conflict with the IRS school yard bully. The family made bank deposits from their bakery’s business – often in cash, and often in amounts less than $10,000, which would trigger currency transaction reporting (by law) at US banks. Yes, it appears that even in 2016, people buy baked goods with cash, just not more than $10,000 at a time.

So the IRS, the school yard bully, showed up at the business, with armed agents, and conducted a raid, seizing $68,000. The Vocaturas resisted the IRS seizure and sought the return of their property in court. The school yard bully responded by launching a criminal tax investigation – a battle which has caused 3 years of legal wrangling between the IRS and the Vocaturas, who frankly have a bakery to run and shouldn’t have to be spending their time trying to seek the return of their own property that was seized on suspicion of a crime they have never been charged with.

The IRS has filed no charges. Did not bring the case in front of a judge. They preferred instead to try to strong-arm the Vocaturas into a plea arrangement to voluntarily give up the funds, serve 3-4 years in prison, and forfeit an additional $160,000 in personal assets. Without the benefit of a trial. Without charges ever being filed. The school yard bully has quite an appetite for school lunch money.

We’re glad there are defenders of freedom like IJ out there to stand up to the school yard bullies at the IRS and other similarly-minded agencies.

But in our view, defense is not enough. How many stories like the Vocaturas are out there – just to a lesser extent? Government agencies from the local, to state, to federal level routinely have poor transparency, and no accountability procedures for the property seized. Civil forfeiture outstrips criminal forfeiture (where an actual crime is proven and a party found guilty) by an almost 7 to 1 ratio. For every  criminal forfeiture where a defendant has pled or been found guilty, there are another 7 civil forfeitures.

To protect our rights as guaranteed by the Constitution, which is why government exists in the first place, it’s time to go on the offense.

The IRS may have finally, begrudgingly returned the $68,000 it seized from the Vocaturas. Yet the criminal probe goes on. Surely the best and brightest agents at the IRS would be able to discover evidence enough for charges to be filed against local bakery operators after 3 years of investigation. (It took the government less time to investigate and convict Martha Stewart.)

Where do the Vocaturas go to get 3 years of their life back? How are they made whole after having their business violently raided by armed federal agents when they committed no violent offenses themselves? What recourse will they have for having to prepare and provide 8 years of records to the government to try to prove their innocence against charges that were never brought against them?

Stripping a citizen of their Fourth Amendment rights should become a criminal act both for agents and agencies alike. Holding officers of the government personally and criminally liable for wrongdoing is not without precedent and is a practice that may need to be expanded in order to protect our civil liberties.

The Privacy Act of 1974 establishes criminal penalties for employees or officers of agencies who knowingly and willfully disclose personally identifiable information. It is a misdemeanor offense, punishable by a $5,000 fine. The agency can also face civil penalties in court, to include payment of attorney fees and representation costs.

This sounds about right to us.

IRS agents who engaged in willful seizure of property, failed to bring charges, failed to obtain warrants, and instead engaged in a 3-year protracted legal battle with private citizens, could be found guilty of misdemeanor offenses. Law should be established to compel the IRS in this case to pay civil penalties and legal fees as atonement for the civil terrorism it has inflicted on private citizens.

In such cases as these, we are reminded of a sentiment from Thomas Jefferson, who said, “The two enemies of the people are criminals and government, so let us tie the second down with the chains of the Constitution so the second will not become the legalized version of the first.”

We can’t think of a more relevant modern example of government engaging in criminal behavior that is legally sanctioned than the kind of school yard bullying that the civil forfeiture process has become.

PHOTO CREDIT: “Bully” by Terry Freedman