Living in a free society brings benefits, but also responsibilities. One of the most important is keeping an eye on government. You never know when lawmakers will try to do something bad -- or something that seems good initially, then goes spectacularly wrong.
A prime example of the latter: civil forfeiture.
Civil forfeiture has ancient roots, but its modern practice dates to the 1980s. It’s a law-enforcement tool that allows police departments to keep the proceeds from whatever property they seize in the course of conducting an investigation or making an arrest. The idea was to remove the profit incentive from criminal kingpins. If you could more easily grab their ill-gotten goods, the theory went, the more you would reduce crime.
What could go wrong? Plenty. Just ask Carole Hinders.
Carole owned and operated her restaurant, Mrs. Lady’s Mexican Food, in Spirit Lake, Iowa, for nearly 40 years. Then, according to “Arresting Your Property,” a special report by the Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies:
“In August 2013, through a secret warrant and with no warning, the federal government seized Carole’s entire bank account—nearly $33,000. She was not charged with any crime, nor did the government claim that her money was earned through any illegal activity; however, she was told by two IRS agents that they seized her account because she had made several cash deposits of slightly less than $10,000.
“The IRS viewed this as an attempt to avoid a federal reporting requirement on deposits exceeding $10,000. The simple explanation for this was that Carole’s small establishment was cash-only; to avoid the danger of keeping large amounts of cash at the restaurant, she made frequent deposits to her bank account.”
It took Carole more than a year of fighting (thanks to pro bono representation by the Institute for Justice) to get her money back. And she’s one of the lucky ones. Many victims have had longer, more expensive legal battles -- and they didn’t end well.
I wish her experience was an isolated one, but it’s not. The Meese Center has been compiling a database of such stories -- more than 50 accounts of ordinary men and women who have had assets seized despite little or no evidence that these assets were connected in any way to criminal activity.
· Andrew Clyde. This Iraqi War veteran owns a small gun shop armory in Athens, Ga. In April 2013, two IRS agents showed up without warning to seize nearly $1 million from the shop’s bank account for the same “offense” Carole Hinders had committed: making repeated cash deposits.
· Richard and Mitch Hirsch. For 27 years, these New York brothers ran a small business selling candy, snacks and cigarettes to local convenience stores. In May 2012, the IRS seized more than $446,000 from them and all because they too had been making repeated cash deposits.
· The Contemporary Art Museum. This Detroit business was hosting an event in 2008 for 130 guests when armor-clad police stormed in, guns drawn, and forced everyone to the floor. They then seized 40 vehicles. Why? The museum had failed to get a permit to serve alcohol. The humiliated attendees were forced to pay $900 each to get their vehicles back.
So what can be done? “Arresting Your Property” lists several common-sense reforms. Perhaps the most obvious is to reaffirm the presumption of innocence. Civil forfeiture has turned this vital concept on its head, leaving property owners to essentially prove they are innocent. Another is to raise the standard of proof from a “preponderance of the evidence” to “clear and convincing evidence.”
Like many Americans, I want police to be able to stop criminal activity. Their hands shouldn’t be tied by unreasonably restrictive laws that make it all but impossible to do their jobs. But in the case of civil forfeiture, the pendulum has swung much too far the other way. Far from stopping crime, it’s fostering contempt for law enforcement and targeting innocent people. It’s time to rein in this abusive practice.