Tag: civil asset forfeiture

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez Signs Civil Forfeiture Abolition Bill

A quick and happy update from New Mexico: Gov. Susana Martinez (R) has signed HB 560, which I detailed here, into law. New Mexico has thus effectively abolished civil asset forfeiture by requiring a criminal conviction before the government can seize property.

Gov. Martinez’s statement can be read here.

House Bill 560 (HB 560) makes numerous changes to the asset forfeiture process used by law enforcement agencies in New Mexico. As an attorney and career prosecutor, I understand how important it is that we ensure safeguards are in place to protect our constitutional rights. On balance, the changes made by this legislation improve the transparency and accountability of the forfeiture process and provide further protections to innocent property owners.

As expected, civil liberties advocates across the political spectrum cheered the move.

ACLU-NM Executive Director Peter Simonson:

This is a good day for the Bill of Rights. For years police could seize people’s cash, cars, and houses without even accusing anyone of a crime. Today, we have ended this unfair practice in New Mexico and replaced it with a model that is just and constitutional.

Institute for Justice Legislative Counsel Lee McGrath:

New Mexico has shown that ending policing for profit is a true bipartisan issue with broad public support. America is ready to end civil asset forfeiture, a practice which is not in line with our values or constitution. This law shows that we can be tough on crime without stripping property away from innocent Americans.

Emily Kaltenbach of the New Mexico chapter of the Drug Policy Alliance:

New Mexico has succeeded today in reining in one of the worst excesses of the drug war. Like other drug war programs, civil asset forfeiture is disproportionately used against poor people of color who cannot afford to hire lawyers to get their property back. This law is an important step towards repairing some of the damage the drug war has inflicted upon our society and system of justice.

Civil asset forfeiture is an inherently abusive practice that provides perverse incentives to law enforcement, encourages “policing for profit,” and allows the government to take the property of individuals and businesses that are never charged with any wrongdoing. Hopefully the bipartisan spirit of the New Mexico abolition (HB 560 passed the legislature unanimously) will serve as a model for other legislatures around the country who wish to restore our cherished concepts of due process and private property to their proper status.

Eric Holder Issues New Asset Forfeiture Restrictions for Structuring Offenses

Today Attorney General Eric Holder issued new guidelines to federal prosecutors tightening the rules for seizing assets for so-called “structuring” offenses.

Under the Bank Secrecy Act, structuring occurs when someone is suspected of arranging their financial transactions as to avoid triggering a report to the federal government by the financial institution.  Some of civil asset forfeiture’s most egregious abuses are the result of federal prosecutors utilizing this nebulous statute to empty the bank accounts of unwitting citizens and small businesses who are never charged with any crime or even aware that their transactions are considered illegal. 

The new rules require:

1. That structuring seizures against people for whom there is no criminal charge be based upon probable cause that the funds were either generated by unlawful activity or intended for use in anticipated unlawful activity.  Alternatively, prosecutors must procure a warrant from a court and with the approval of either the U.S. Attorney (for Assistant U.S. Attorneys) or the Chief of the Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section (AFMLS) (for Criminal Division trial attorneys).

2. That when the prosecutor determines subsequent to a structuring seizure that the government lacks the necessary evidence to succeed at either a civil or criminal trial, the seizing agency must return the full amount.

3. That when a prosecutor seizes property pursuant to suspicion of structuring, the prosecutor must file either a criminal indictment or a civil complaint, or receive an exception from either a U.S. Attorney or Chief of AFMLS within 150 days or else return the seized assets.

4. That all settlements must be complete and in writing.  Informal settlements are expressly prohibited.

Kudos to the New Mexico Legislature for Abolishing Civil Asset Forfeiture

Good news from out west.  A New Mexico bill, HB 560, to restrict civil asset forfeiture has cleared the legislature - receiving unanimous support in the State House and State Senate - and awaits the signature of Governor Susana Martinez to become law.

Among other things, the New Mexico bill requires a criminal conviction for forfeiture actions, bolsters the “innocent owner” defense by requiring that the owner know that his/her property was being used illegally, requires that all forfeiture proceeds be deposited into the general fund rather than into the seizing agencies, and limits the ability of state and local law enforcement agencies to circumvent state law by utilizing the federal equitable sharing program.

As noted numerous times by Cato and other civil liberties advocates like the Institute for Justice and the ACLU, civil asset forfeiture is a conceptually unjust practice that has no place in a society that cherishes due process and private property.  

That many state legislatures across the country are now undertaking efforts to rein in this government abuse is something worth cheering about.

Quiet Change Expands ATF Power to Seize Property

A quick glance at the Federal Register (Vol. 80, No. 37, p. 9987-88) today reveals that Attorney General Eric Holder, who earned cautious praise last month for a small reform to the federal equitable sharing program, has now delegated authority to the Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) to seize and “administratively forfeit” property involved in suspected drug offenses.  Holder temporarily delegated this authority to the ATF on a trial basis in 2013, and today made the delegation permanent while lauding the ATF for seizing more than $19.3 million from Americans during the trial period.

Historically, when the ATF uncovered contraband subject to forfeiture under drug statutes, it was required to either refer the property to the DEA for administrative forfeiture proceedings or to a U.S. Attorney in order to initiate a judicial forfeiture action.  Under today’s change, the ATF will now be authorized to seize property related to alleged drug offenses and initiate administrative forfeiture proceedings all on its own.

The DOJ claims this rule change doesn’t affect individual rights (and was thus exempt from the notice and comment requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act) and that the change is simply an effort to streamline the federal government’s forfeiture process.  Those who now stand more likely to have their property taken without even a criminal charge may beg to differ.

Further, the department claims that forcing the ATF to go through a judicial process in order to seize property requires too much time and money.  Whereas an “uncontested administrative forfeiture can be perfected in 60-90 days for minimal cost […] the costs associated with judicial forfeiture can amount to hundreds or thousands of dollars and the judicial process generally can take anywhere from 6 months to years.”  In other words, affording judicial process to Americans suspected of engaging in criminal activity takes too long and costs too much. 

Seize First, Question Later: The Institute for Justice’s New Report on the IRS’ Abusive Civil Forfeiture Regime

Considering the growing controversy over the abuse of civil asset forfeiture at the federal and state levels, the Institute for Justice’s newly released report on the IRS’ questionable use of the practice is perfectly timed.

An excerpt from the executive summary:

Federal civil forfeiture laws give the Internal Revenue Service the power to clean out bank accounts without charging their owners with any crime. Making matters worse, the IRS considers a series of cash deposits or withdrawals below $10,000 enough evidence of “structuring” to take the money, without any other evidence of wrongdoing. Structuring—depositing or withdrawing smaller amounts to evade a federal law that requires banks to report transactions larger than $10,000 to the federal government—is illegal, but more importantly, structured funds are also subject to civil forfeiture.

Civil forfeiture is the government’s power to take property suspected of involvement in a crime. Unlike criminal forfeiture, no one needs to be convicted of—or even a charged with—a crime for the government to take the property. Lax civil forfeiture standards enable the IRS to “seize first and ask questions later,” taking money without serious investigation and forcing owners into a long and difficult legal battle to try to stop the forfeiture. Any money forfeited is then used to fund further law enforcement efforts, giving agencies like the IRS an incentive to seize.

Data provided by the IRS indicate that its civil forfeiture activities for suspected structuring are large and growing…

For the uninitiated, under the Bank Secrecy Act of 1970, financial institutions are required to report deposits of more than $10,000 to the federal government.  The law also makes it illegal to “structure” deposits in such a way as to avoid that reporting requirement.  Under the IRS’ conception of the law, “structuring” may be nothing more than making several sub-$10,000 deposits, without any further suspicion of particular wrongdoing.  For obvious reasons, many small businesses and individuals can find themselves on the wrong side of this law without any criminal intent.

When the structuring law is combined with the incredibly low burdens required for the federal government to seize assets through civil forfeiture, the potential for abuse is self-evident.  While the lack of criminal intent may protect against criminal structuring charges, it is no barrier to the government’s overbroad power to initiate civil proceedings against the money itself.

IJ’s report, authored by Dick M. Carpenter II and Larry Salzman, goes in depth to reveal the history and unbelievable breadth of the IRS’ civil forfeiture regime, the perverse incentives it creates for government agencies, and the individual livelihoods it threatens and destroys.  IJ makes the case for much stronger protections for private property rights (including the outright abolition of civil forfeiture as a government power).

Be sure to check out the full report, as well as the Institute for Justice’s other work on asset forfeiture and private property here.

For more of Cato’s recent work on civil forfeiture, see Roger Pilon’s recent National Interest  article here, my blog post here, and a recent podcast here.

 

Loretta Lynch’s Worrisome Answer on Civil Asset Forfeiture

Referring to the federal government’s forfeiture regime as “an important tool” in fighting crime, attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch staunchly defended the concept of civil asset forfeiture during the first day of her confirmation hearings.

After Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) questioned the “fundamental fairness” of Americans having their property taken by the government without any proof (or often even suspicion) of criminal wrongdoing, Lynch asserted that there are “safeguards at every step of the process” to protect innocent people, “certainly implemented by [her] office … as well as an opportunity to be heard.”

Even setting aside the litany of federal civil asset forfeiture abuses that have come to light recently across the country, Lynch’s reference to her own office’s handling of civil forfeiture is particularly concerning.

Lynch is currently the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and her office, despite its safeguards, is responsible for one of the more publicized and questionable uses of the asset forfeiture program.  In May of 2012 the Hirsch brothers, joint owners of Bi-County Distributors in Long Island, had their entire bank account drained by the Internal Revenue Service working in conjunction with Lynch’s office. Many of Bi-County’s customers paid in cash, and when the brothers made several deposits under $10,000, federal agents accused them of “structuring” their deposits in order to avoid the reporting requirements of the Bank Secrecy Act. Without so much as a criminal charge, the federal government emptied the account, totaling $446,651.11.

For more than two years, and in defiance of the 60-day deadline for the initiation of proceedings included in the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000, Lynch’s office simply sat on the money while the Hirsch brothers survived off the goodwill their business had engendered with its vendors over the decades.

Cops and the Cash They Confiscate

Today the Washington Post is starting a series of articles entitled, “Stop and Seize,” which take a critical look at the power of the government to take cash away from people using civil asset forfeiture laws. Here are a few of the findings from the Post investigation:



  • There have been 61,998 cash seizures made on highways and elsewhere since 9/11 without search warrants or indictments through the Equitable Sharing Program, totaling more than $2.5 billion. State and local authorities kept more than $1.7 billion of that while Justice, Homeland Security and other federal agencies received $800 million. Half of the seizures were below $8,800.

  • Only a sixth of the seizures were legally challenged, in part because of the costs of legal action against the government. But in 41 percent of cases — 4,455 — where there was a challenge, the government agreed to return money. The appeals process took more than a year in 40 percent of those cases and often required owners of the cash to sign agreements not to sue police over the seizures.

  • Hundreds of state and local departments and drug task forces appear to rely on seized cash, despite a federal ban on the money to pay salaries or otherwise support budgets. The Post found that 298 departments and 210 task forces have seized the equivalent of 20 percent or more of their annual budgets since 2008.

  • Agencies with police known to be participating in the Black Asphalt intelligence network have seen a 32 percent jump in seizures beginning in 2005, three times the rate of other police departments. Desert Snow-trained officers reported more than $427 million in cash seizures during highway stops in just one five-year period, according to company officials. More than 25,000 police have belonged to Black Asphalt, company officials said.
Behind the numbers are real people and today’s article explains how these police practices impact their lives.  One of the victims mentioned is Mandrel Stuart:
Mandrel Stuart, a 35-year-old African American owner of a small barbecue restaurant in Staunton, Va., was stunned when police took $17,550 from him during a stop in 2012 for a minor traffic infraction on Interstate 66 in Fairfax. He rejected a settlement with the government for half of his money and demanded a jury trial. He eventually got his money back but lost his business because he didn’t have the cash to pay his overhead. “I paid taxes on that money. I worked for that money,” Stuart said. “Why should I give them my money?”
That’s a question that Cato has been asking policymakers for many years now.  In 1992, Cato published “American Forfeiture Law: When Property Owners Meet the Prosecutor.”  In 1995, Cato published, Forfeiting Our Property Rights: Is Your Property Safe from Seizure?, by the late Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL).  In 1999, Cato held a conference titled, “Forfeiture Reform: Now, or Never?   More recently, in 2010, Cato hosted an event for the authors of Policing for Profit, a report from our friends at the Institute for Justice.  Over the years, in blog posts, op-eds, congressional testimony, radio interviews, and university lectures, Cato scholars have been defending the rights of people from forfeiture abuse.