An investigation by the U.S. Treasury Department‘s Inspector General for Tax Administration, launched under pressure of litigation brought by the libertarian-leaning Institute for Justice, maddeningly finds that the Internal Revenue Service has been using asset forfeiture to confiscate millions of dollars from businesses that committed no crimes.
The libertarian-oriented website Reason breaks it down in detail, stating that “between 2012 and 2014, IRS investigators seized hundreds of bank accounts from business owners based on nothing but a suspicious pattern of deposits. In more than 90 percent of those cases, the money was completely legal.”
In several cases, innocent business owners had their life savings seized by the IRS for violating so-called “anti-structuring” rules, intended to stop money launderers from evading federal banking regulations by making small cash deposits of under $10,000. IRS agents “ruthlessly pursued” cases against small business owners when there was no evidence of criminal activity other than the cash deposits.
The New York Times profiled the case of Carol Hinders, an Iowa woman who runs a small cash-only Mexican restaurant. In 2013, two IRS agents showed up at Hinder’s door and told her the agency was seizing $33,000 from her bank account for “structuring” violations. She was never accused of a crime.
In response to activist pressure, the IRS did announce in 2014 that it was changing its asset forfeiture policies to only pursue cases where there is other evidence of criminal activity.
And Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam introduced a bill in Congress this year that would codify the IRS’ new policy—allowing the agency to only pursue “structuring” cases when it has reason to believe the money was the fruit of criminal activity. Roskam’s bill passed the House unanimously last year, but it died after failing to make it to the Senate floor.
The full scale of these cash seizures, however, has only been revealed now—totaling $17 million over the two-year period studied.
“When you read this kind of thing, it’s troubling and disturbing,” said Robert Everett Johnson of the Institute for Justice, “but it shouldn’t be surprising given the profit incentives that civil forfeiture creates.”