Did you know you don't actually need to be charged with a crime for the government to seize your financial and property assets?
Under U.S. law, it can take only the suspicion of a crime to turn lives upside down and seize the property of innocent citizens.
The civil asset forfeiture law allows government agencies like the IRS or the Department of Justice to confiscate anyone's property without obtaining criminal charges against them.
Originally intended to seize the assets of money launderers and drug dealers, the law's low requirement threshold has allowed government agencies to incorrectly identify someone as a possible suspect in a crime take their assets. It can take more than a year for an innocent person who has had their business, property or finances seized to be cleared of wrongdoing, during which time they can lose everything, said Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), who is working to reform the law.
Walberg has introduced the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act, which would require the government to show proof that an individual was involved in criminal wrongdoing before it can seize property. Currently before the House Judiciary Committee, the legislation has several cosponsors but may have difficulty passing both the House and Senate.
Wednesday's new episode of TheBlaze TV's For the Record, "Seized," will reveal how thousands of people have become innocent victims of the government’s forfeiture law and what they are doing to fight back.
"This has a tremendous negative impact on our freedoms and the ability to carry on our government the way it’s been established according to the Constitution," Walberg said. "That’s not what government should be, in the place of being a fearmonger, a producer of fear in the peoples’ lives and ultimately, using their power to extract resources for their own benefit."
David B. Smith, an asset forfeiture attorney based in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside the nation's capital, told TheBlaze that many small-business owners become targets of the government because they don't have a full understanding of the law. He said many small-business owners draw the attention of the IRS when they inadvertently engage in "structuring," a banking tactic often used by money launderers.
Structuring is when someone makes deposits or withdrawals of less $10,000 to avoid having the bank file a currency transaction report with the IRS or the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. Business owners, however, have told Smith they believed they were following the law when they made deposits or withdrawals of less than $10,000.
Smith, who helped draft the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 and other federal and state forfeiture laws, said the banks don't warn customers that they will be targeted by the government if they make these types of deposits.
"There are federal judges who don’t know it’s illegal. There are loads of lawyers who don’t know it’s illegal, even criminal defense lawyers, because very few people handle these types of cases," Smith said.
But it's not just seizing people's assets without proper cause that's a concern. According to the Institute of Justice, a civil liberties law firm and government watchdog group, allegations of overreach by law enforcement have included using forfeiture funds to purchase unnecessary and often outlandish items, including:
• In Georgia, a district attorney's used forfeiture funds to buy steak, booze and to see CeeLo Green in Concert.
• In Texas, a district attorney used $500 dollars of seized forfeiture funds to buy tequila, rum and a margarita machine to throw a party.
• Another Texas district attorney spent $27,000 to attend a conference in Hawaii.
• A Georgia sheriff's office spent $90,000 on a Dodge Viper for its D.A.R.E. program.
But it's what law enforcement officials themselves say that reveals how dependent the agencies have become on forfeiture funds. At a Columbia, Missouri, Citizens Police Review Board in November 2012, Police Chief Ken Burton explained in detail how his department uses the forfeiture funds, saying there are no real limitations on what the departments can buy.
"We usually base it on something that would be nice to have," Burton. "We usually base it on something that would be nice to have that we can't get in the budget for. We try not to use it for things that we need to depend on … it's kinda like 'Pennies from Heaven' to get you a toy or something that you need is the way we typically look at it."
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