North Carolina Forfeiture Case Reveals Limits of Executive Reform, Government Defensiveness

In March, we detailed reforms announced by Attorney General Eric Holder to federal asset forfeitures under the Bank Secrecy Act’s “structuring” law.  Those changes mirror an earlier policy shift by the Internal Revenue Service.  Unfortunately for some, those changes were not made retroactive, meaning people whose property was seized before the announcements in a way that would violate the new policies did not automatically have their property returned.

Lyndon McLellan, the owner of a North Carolina convenience store, has not been charged with a crime.  He has, however, had his entire business account totaling $107,702.66, seized by the federal government.  As Mr. McLellan attempts to recover his money, he is now being represented by the Institute for Justice, which issued this release:

“This case demonstrates that the federal government’s recent reforms are riddled with loopholes and exceptions and fundamentally fail to protect Americans’ basic rights,” said Institute for Justice Attorney Robert Everett Johnson, who represents Lyndon. “No American should have his property taken by the government without first being convicted of a crime.”

In February 2015, during a hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Ways & Means Oversight Subcommittee, North Carolina Congressman George Holding told IRS Commissioner John Koskinen that he had reviewed Lyndon’s case—without specifically naming it—and that there was no allegation of the kind of illegal activity required by the IRS’s new policy. The IRS Commissioner responded, “If that case exists, then it’s not following the policy.”

The government’s response to the notoriety Mr. McLellan’s case has received was nothing short of threatening.  After the hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven West wrote to Mr. McLellan’s attorney:

Whoever made [the case file] public may serve their own interest but will not help this particular case. Your client needs to resolve this or litigate it. But publicity about it doesn’t help. It just ratchets up feelings in the agency. My offer is to return 50% of the money. 

What “feelings in the agency” could possibly be “ratchet[ed] up” by highlighting a case in which the owner is accused of no wrongdoing while both the Department of Justice and the Internal Revenue Service have announced reforms to prevent these seizures from occurring?

Perhaps the government is sensitive to the avalanche of negative press that civil asset forfeiture has received over the past several years (thanks to the tireless efforts of organizations like the Institute for Justice and the ACLU).  Perhaps the government feels that the game is nearly up, after dozens of publicized cases of civil asset forfeiture abuse.

Cases like this show that the executive branch, now under a new Attorney General who has her own controversial civil forfeiture history, cannot be trusted to stay its own hand.  State and federal legislators must take the initiative, as some already have, if this abusive practice is going to end.