What if government officials took your property and told you that they could keep it—even if you had done nothing wrong? That’s exactly what happened to Terry Dehko, a victim of civil asset forfeiture.
Dehko is an immigrant owner of a grocery store who fled to the U.S. to escape religious persecution in Iraq and pursue the American Dream. Dehko is an innocent citizen who is still trying to recover more than $35,000 that the IRS seized from his small business, which was all the funds in the store’s account. Dehko’s business is now in jeopardy of failing because this seizure has imperiled his ability to pay his vendors.
Welcome to the world of “civil asset forfeiture.” While the name might sound arcane and dull, the results are frightening: Each of the 50 states and the federal government has laws on the books allowing the government to seize property allegedly related to a crime. Sometimes—as in the case of a bank account being frozen to stop terrorist activity or a drug kingpin—the forfeiture makes sense.
Police departments are allowed to keep the property as a motivation to fight crime, but this practice leads to perverse incentives. For instance, officers have been known to target cars suspected of carrying drug cash into Mexico, because the agencies get to keep that cash. Meanwhile, cars carrying drugs from Mexico into the U.S. are ignored.
Moreover, civil forfeiture risks putting revenue raising above concern for constitutional property rights or the due process rights of the property owners. The odds are that civil forfeiture abuse is happening in your state, and victims are popping up all over.
Most small business owners, such as Dehko, are familiar with the IRS rule that requires them to report cash deposits over $10,000. What they might not be aware of is that it is also against the law to “structure” a series of deposits below the $10,000 threshold, rather than making one deposit in excess of $10,000, for the purpose of avoiding the reporting requirement.
But what if that was not the purpose? What if there was a legitimate business purpose for doing so that is totally unrelated to currency transaction reporting requirements?
Dehko, who had recently been audited and given a clear bill of health by the IRS, states that he did not like keeping large amounts of cash in his store and that he limited the amounts of money his clerks carried to the bank because, like many small businesses, his store’s insurance policy has a $10,000 limit for cash losses.
Nobody is contending that Terry Dehko earned his money in some nefarious way. He earned his money through hard work by him, his family, and his employees. Dehko would like nothing more than to be able to prove this, but rather than listen to him, the IRS is forcing Dehko to tell his story to a judge. Dehko is lucky though: Despite the IRS holding onto his cash for over 10 months, he can still eat and has a roof over his head. Other victims of civil forfeiture are not so lucky.
Civil forfeiture is getting more attention nowadays, and the victim stories are everywhere. But this is not a new phenomenon: Property rights advocates have known for years that civil forfeiture is a heavy club in need of reform. The scary thing is that civil forfeiture reform is a lucrative business for local law enforcement, with perverse incentives that could easily be fixed with legislation. What is lacking is the political will.