The last issue of Liberty & Law summarized a series of victories that are helping build momentum to end civil forfeiture. And at IJ, we never rest on our laurels. In fact, we have been working hard to turn these victories into even bigger successes.
IJ drove civil forfeiture back before Capitol Hill in mid-February as the U.S. House of Representatives held two simultaneous hearings on the ability of the federal government to seize private property from innocent owners—15 years after lawmakers last addressed the issue.
In one hearing room, IJ Attorney Darpana Sheth testified before the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations to address recent legislative reform proposals. There, she went toe-to-toe with the Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Criminal Division.
Not surprisingly, the Deputy Assistant Attorney General gave a vigorous defense of federal civil forfeiture laws, claiming they are a “critical legal tool.” But Darpana directly challenged DOJ’s misrepresentations of the law and facts surrounding forfeiture. As Darpana noted to the subcommittee: “Contrary to [DOJ]’s written testimony, the process does in fact turn the presumption of innocence on its head.”
DOJ disingenuously claimed that federal forfeiture efforts were largely about such esoteric outliers as the seizure of Michael Vick’s pit pulls or rare dinosaur eggs. But, as Darpana countered, “Civil forfeiture has treated countless ordinary Americans worse than criminals.” The Washington Post found that, since 2001, civil forfeiture has resulted in more than 61,000 cash seizures, totaling $2.5 billion, through “highway interdictions” alone—all without any search warrants or indictments.
Nearby, the Subcommittee on Oversight of the House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing examining the IRS’s abuse of small-business owners through application of structuring laws. Through this process (as Seize First, Question Later, our recent report on structuring documents, see page 14), the IRS has seized millions of dollars from thousands of Americans’ bank accounts without proof of any criminal wrongdoing. At this hearing, the IRS Commissioner himself testified and was excoriated by members from across the political spectrum for what the agency did to small-business owners like IJ client Jeff Hirsch.
Following the IRS Commissioner’s testimony, Jeff testified about the nightmare his family endured when the IRS cleaned out his small business’s entire bank account based solely on the fact that the Hirsches made deposits of less than $10,000 at their bank. As Jeff stated: “No American should have to endure the treatment I received at the hands of the IRS.”
Sitting beside Jeff and other victims of the IRS’s practices was IJ Attorney Robert Everett Johnson. Rob noted that due to IJ’s litigation and media work, the IRS now claims that it has changed its policies and will no longer use civil forfeiture to seize bank accounts from innocent Americans by simply claiming that the owners are structuring their deposits or withdrawals. But, as Rob reminded the committee members, that is just what the agency claims. Unless the statutes are changed, that policy has no force of law and could be modified or eliminated overnight with the stroke of a pen.
The hearings underscored the urgent need for reform of civil forfeiture laws. Thankfully, the U.S. Congress is not the only legislative arena where reform is being pursued. Legislatures in over a dozen states are now considering some type of change to civil forfeiture laws.
The struggle to reform forfeiture laws through legislative action will be very tough. Because law enforcement agencies financially benefit from so many of the laws, they are aggressive in their defense of them. Furthermore, these agencies have enormous political strength. But by building on our past legal and legislative victories and through future lawsuits, IJ attorneys and clients will be there at every turn to set the terms of the debate. And IJ will continue to expose the injustices of civil forfeiture laws and to remind legislators and judges that they have a duty to protect the constitutional rights of private property owners.
Scott Bullock is an IJ senior attorney.