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.