civil asset forfeiture

The IRS Folds, Returns 100% of Lyndon McLellan’s Money

Defying a demand from the federal government to stop publicizing his case, today Lyndon McLellan was told the IRS is abandoning its efforts to keep more than $107,000 it took from his bank account without ever charging him with a crime.

The case received national attention and outrage, including from a member of Congress, which led to this threatening message from an Assistant U.S. Attorney to McLellan’s lawyers:

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. 

So much for that; Mr. McLellan will be receiving 100% of his money back.  

President Obama Wields Much More Influence over Police than He Admits

Taking time out of his press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe on Tuesday, President Obama addressed the chaos in Baltimore following the unexplained death in custody of Freddie Gray. 

While pleading for calm, President Obama lamented his lack of authority to fix the problem:

Now, the challenge for us as the federal government is, is that we don’t run these police forces.  I can’t federalize every police force in the country and force them to retrain.  But what I can do is to start working with them collaboratively so that they can begin this process of change themselves. 

Obama also lamented the lack of political momentum to address the poverty and violence afflicting communities like Baltimore:

That’s how I feel.  I think there are a lot of good-meaning people around the country that feel that way.  But that kind of political mobilization I think we haven’t seen in quite some time.  And what I’ve tried to do is to promote those ideas that would make a difference.  But I think we all understand that the politics of that are tough because it’s easy to ignore those problems or to treat them just as a law and order issue, as opposed to a broader social issue.

Both of those lamentations are misleading.

While it’s true that the federal government generally lacks the power to “force” local police departments to change their behavior, Obama’s comments completely omit his role in administering several federal policies that facilitate, and even incentivize, the abuses and tensions he condemned.

The federal drug war tears apart families through mass incarceration and violence and unjustly forces millions of (especially poor, minority) Americans to carry the stigma of being a convicted criminal. Prohibition, just as it did in the 1920s and 30s, has turned huge swaths of urban America into battlefields in the competition for black market real estate. President Obama has already demonstrated a willingness to ease federal drug enforcement in several states, and there is nothing keeping him from expanding that rollback.  He has also pardoned several non-violent drug offenders, even while federal prosecutors convict new ones every day.

Loretta Lynch Confirmed as Attorney General

After one of the longest confirmation processes in the history of the Attorney General’s office, Loretta Lynch was confirmed by the Senate today as Eric Holder’s successor.

From a criminal justice perspective, whether Lynch will embrace or abandon Holder’s position on state-level drug legalization and his announced commitment to reforming civil asset forfeiture are two questions that spring immediately to mind.

Loretta Lynch zealously defended civil asset forfeiture during her confirmation hearings, and was a devoted practitioner of it as a U.S. Attorney in New York.  One of her seizure cases, that of the Hirsch brothers [$], garnered widespread attention and condemnation, and helped spur the nationwide calls for reform to which Eric Holder responded.

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.

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. 

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