New York Civil Forfeiture Nightmare Ends
Arlington, Va.—Federal prosecutors have agreed to return everything they seized from a Long Island convenience-store distributor, bringing one of the most widely-watched civil forfeiture fights in the nation to a close.
In 2012, the IRS seized nearly $447,000 from Bi-County Distributors and its owners, the Hirsch Family, based solely on a pattern of cash deposits deemed suspicious by government agents. Federal law requires banks to report cash deposits larger than $10,000 to the IRS. Since the Hirsches often made deposits less than $10,000, the government claimed they were seeking to evade the reporting requirement.
Civil forfeiture laws allow the government to seize property without charging anyone with, let alone convicting them of, a crime. The government acknowledged in its agreement to return the money that the Hirsch brothers, who operate Bi-County, were never charged with any crime. In fact, all of the money deposited by the Hirsches was lawfully earned from their small business.
“This is a significant victory not only for the Hirsch brothers, but for property owners around the country,” said Institute for Justice Attorney Larry Salzman. “No American should lose their bank account or other property to law enforcement without even being charged with a crime.”
The case generated national attention including a front-page article in The New York Times and an editorial in The Wall Street Journal.During the two-and-a-half years that the government held the money, federal prosecutors filed no formal action in court to complete the forfeiture, which deprived the Hirsch brothers of an opportunity to contest the seizure in court.
In October 2014, the family teamed up with the Institute for Justice and sued to force the government into court. Rather than defend its actions in response to the lawsuit, the government agreed to return all of the seized money and to not pursue forfeiture of the funds in any civil or criminal action in the future.
Two high-ranking members on the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee recently filed bipartisan legislation to curb civil forfeiture abuses similar to the Hirsches’ case. Civil forfeiture has also become an issue in the confirmation of the nominee for U.S. Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, whose office presided over the Hirsches’ case.
Jeffrey Hirsch, the oldest of the three brothers, said, “Nobody in America should have to live through the nightmare we’ve experienced. Civil forfeiture nearly destroyed our business even though we did nothing wrong.”
IJ Attorney Robert Everett Johnson said, “Unfortunately, this case is far from unique, and the nightmare continues for other property owners. This case vividly illustrates the dangers associated with civil forfeiture, which turns the principle of innocent-until-proven guilty on its head by forcing property owners to prove their own innocence to get their property back.”
For more on the lawsuit, visit www.ij.org/long-island-forfeiture. Founded in 1991, the Virginia-based Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty.