Few people know about the one-sided civil forfeiture laws in the United
States. And some who do are all too familiar with them because of what
the government has done. In one case in particular, as reported by the
Washington Post, a small business owner had all of his life’s savings taken from
him, and he was not even charged with a crime.
One day the IRS drained the business owner’s bank account of over
$100,000 dollars. Their justification was that he was involved in some
sort of suspicious banking activity of depositing less than $10,000 at
a time when he went to the bank. After hiring a lawyer and trying to get
his money back, the IRS refused. It took a charitable legal foundation
and a national story to force the government to give the money back. But
he is still out the money he spent on lawyers at the beginning. And this
case is not isolated. There are dozens of stories like his, including a
young entrepreneur who had $10,000 in seed money taken from him on his way to California to make a music video. How can the government do this?
Civil Forfeiture Laws
Essentially there are two different kinds of forfeiture: civil and criminal.
Criminal forfeiture is more straightforward and happens after someone
is convicted of a crime. Any money the criminal has or that was taken
from him during the investigation is forfeited to the government. This
type of forfeiture is less controversial, because it only happens at the
end of a process where each side gets to make their case. But civil forfeiture
is not like this at all.
Civil forfeiture is one of the many products of the war on drugs. In the
1980s, state and federal governments passed laws that allowed their police
forces to seize and retain money seized during a drug investigation. While
still not terribly controversial, it opened the door to a different beast
altogether. In the year 2000 Congress passed a law that fully empowered
government officials with the ability to seize the assets of any citizen
that the government official suspects of wrongdoing. All the official
has to do is get an order from a judge, and the assets are turned over
to the government. This new wave of civil forfeiture added billions of
dollars to the government’s coffers, but left many wondering whether
it was right to do.
Backlash and Response
The use of civil forfeiture to take someone’s money is increasingly
controversial. The ACLU and other charitable legal foundations devote
entire sections of their work to fighting to get money back for people
who are wrongly accused. The problem with this approach is the caseload.
All too often people have to hire their own lawyers to get the money back.
In this scenario, even if successful, the lawyer’s fees cut in to
any recovery. The government justifies the use of civil forfeiture as
a tool to fight criminal activity and tax evasion.
Don’t stand idly by if you have lost money to forfeiture. Contact the
Pittman Firm for help.