Arlington, Va.—Just hours after the Institute for Justice announced it was joining another civil forfeiture lawsuit in Michigan against the federal government, the IRS filed motions to voluntarily dismiss two forfeiture actions against innocent Detroit-area small-business owners. Terry Dehko of Fraser, Mich., and Mark Zaniewski of Sterling Heights, Mich., will each get back all of the money seized without warning from their business’s bank accounts (over $100,000 in total) by the federal government.
While today’s victories vindicate the property rights of Dehko and Zaniewski, they do not solve the nationwide forfeiture problem. As recently demonstrated in the New Yorker and The Economist, civil forfeiture is now one of the greatest threats to property rights in America today. A separate federal lawsuit filed in September by the Institute for Justice on behalf of Terry Dehko and his daughter, Sandra Thomas, seeks to reform civil forfeiture law to protect the constitutional rights of property owners. That lawsuit will continue.
“The IRS should not be raiding the bank accounts of innocent Americans, and it should not take a team of lawyers to put a stop to this behavior,” said IJ Senior Attorney Clark Neily. “We are thrilled that Terry, Sandy, and Mark will finally get their money back, but their fight does not end today. Our constitutional lawsuit against the federal government seeks to rein in the shameful practice of civil forfeiture.”
On September 25, Terry Dehko and his daughter Sandy joined with the Institute for Justice to file a constitutional lawsuit challenging the federal government’s use of civil forfeiture. That case seeks a federal court ruling declaring that property owners are entitled to a prompt hearing either before or immediately after their property is seized, and enjoining the federal government from using civil forfeiture without providing such a prompt hearing. Further, the lawsuit asks the court to clarify that it is not illegal for law-abiding businesses to make frequent cash deposits for legitimate business purposes. Like most small-business owners, Terry Dehko and Mark Zaniewski make regular cash deposits at their banks, and that is the sole reason the IRS seized their money.
Civil forfeiture allows the government to take private property from Americans without ever charging them with, let alone convicting them of, any crime. Astonishingly, the proceeds of civil forfeiture are used to pad the budgets of the very agencies that seize the property. Even worse, when the federal government seizes cash—even your entire bank account—the law provides no prompt way to get a court to review the seizure. After seven months, Mark Zaniewski never received a hearing before a judge to contest the seizure of his property. Terry Dehko waited over ten months. The government never charged anyone in either case with any crime.
“Last year alone, the government took in more than four billion dollars in forfeiture money,” said IJ Attorney Larry Salzman. “Taking money from innocent people like Terry Dehko and Mark Zaniewski is wrong, and it needs to end immediately.”
IJ has come to the defense of Americans nationwide to fight civil forfeiture, including the owners of the Motel Caswell in Massachusetts, the owner of a small commercial building in California, and the owner a truck seized in Texas. In 2010, IJ published the landmark report on civil forfeiture, Policing for Profit.
For more on IJ’s forfeiture lawsuits in Michigan, visit www.ij.org/MIForf. Founded in 1991, the Virginia-based Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty. The Institute for Justice was assisted by local counsel Stephen Dunn of Dunn Counsel, PLC, from Troy, Michigan.