Independent Gas Station Owner Joins Civil Forfeiture Fight Against IRS

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · November 14, 2013

Arlington, Va.
Yet another law-abiding Detroit-area small business has had its bank account raided by the IRS without warning under an aggressive policy that treats business owners as guilty until proven innocent, highlighting the serious problems with civil forfeiture nationwide.

This spring, the IRS cleaned out the bank account of the family-owned Metro Marathon service station in Sterling Heights, Mich.—twice, in less than a week—seizing over $70,000, even though owner Mark Zaniewski has violated no law. Zaniewski has teamed up with the Institute for Justice to seek the speedy return of his business’s operating funds. Today, he is asking the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan (Detroit) for a prompt hearing to contest the seizure and for the immediate return of his property.

Zaniewski’s case comes on the heels of another unjustified IRS forfeiture of an innocent Michigan business owner’s bank account. In September 2013, Terry Dehko and Sandra Thomas—owners of a family grocery store in Fraser, Mich.—also teamed up with the Institute for Justice to seek return of their money, which was seized in January. That case has been set for a hearing on December 4, 2013, before Judge Terrence G. Berg in Flint, Mich. The government has not charged anyone in the Dehko or Zaniewski cases with any crime.

“Michigan is ground zero for IRS forfeiture abuse,” said IJ Senior Attorney Clark Neily. “Mark’s case shows that the Dehko seizure was not an isolated incident: The IRS is taking money from hard-working, law-abiding business owners merely because it doesn’t like the way they deposit their money in their bank accounts.”

Like many small businesses, the Metro Marathon service station takes in cash every day from its customers. Owner Mark Zaniewski deposits that money in the bank frequently to avoid accumulating more cash than needed on his station’s premises and to ensure he can pay his vendors.

“I did nothing wrong and my business is being destroyed,” said IJ client Mark Zaniewski. “That’s why I teamed up with the Institute for Justice, to protect the rights of all Americans against civil forfeiture.”

In late March of this year, IRS agents came to Zaniewski’s Metro Marathon service station—a business owned by his family for 40 years—to tell him that his money had been seized. They advised him to deposit whatever additional money he had into the account so that checks he wrote to his vendors would not bounce. One official assured him that only the money they had already taken would be seized. In order to pay for his weekly gas delivery, Zaniewski borrowed thousands of dollars from his family and deposited the funds into Metro Marathon’s account.

Shockingly, before the check to his gas supplier cleared, the IRS returned to Zaniewski’s bank and emptied his account a second time—causing his gas delivery check to bounce and forcing the closure of the station for more than two weeks. Another loan from Zaniewski’s family is the only thing that has allowed him to operate while the IRS has held on to more than $70,000 of his business’s money for more than seven months.

Unfortunately, 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, Zaniewski is still waiting for a hearing before a judge to contest the seizure.

“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 Mark Zaniewski and the Dehko family is wrong. Thankfully, they are prepared to go all the way to the Supreme Court if that’s what it takes to vindicate the due process rights of property owners everywhere.”

The Institute for Justice has come to the defense of Americans nationwide to fight forfeiture abuse, including the Dehko family and their grocery store in Fraser, Mich., 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 today’s lawsuit, visit Founded in 1991, the Virginia-based Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty.