- - Wednesday, May 27, 2015


Reform of civil-forfeiture laws is an idea whose time has come. This is an issue that unites conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats. FreedomWorks, on the right, and the Center for American Progress, on the left, invited writers, bloggers and think-tank analysts to a daylong conference the other day to talk about abuses of civil-forfeiture, which the Heritage Foundation rightly calls “a legal tool that allows law enforcement officials to seize property that they assert has been involved in certain criminal activity.”

Note carefully the word “assert.” The authorities don’t have to prove anything in most jurisdictions. They don’t have to convict or even charge lawbreaking. They can just seize on their “suspicions.” Last year the federal authorities seized $670 million in “criminal” assets and $3.9 billion in civil assets. Anyone’s property can be taken without a conviction, and getting it back can be expensive and often it’s a futile exercise. Lawyers cost money. There’s an incentive for the cops to find an excuse to seize property because it’s a “revenue generator.” Some call it, accurately, “policing for profit.”

Such laws were enacted to punish authentic bad guys. One former president described such asset seizure as enabling the government “to take the alleged ill-gotten gains of drug kingpins and use them to put more cops on the street.”

Last year, Lyndon McLellan of Fairmont, N.C., found his entire life’s savings seized by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service because the IRS thought he could have been guilty of “structuring.” When he asked the IRS what “structuring” was, he was told that it was making several large cash deposits in a 24-hour period.

Banks are required to report transactions over $10,000, and several deposits of less than $10,000 over a short period of time are “suspicious.” Mr. McLellan, 50, operates the L&M Convenience Mart, a gasoline station and cafe in Fairmont, and makes frequent deposits collected from his customers. He’s hardly a Wall Street trader, investment banker with international clients or a kingpin of any kind. But the IRS said it looked “suspicious.” They cleaned out his bank account, $107,000, leaving him with no way to continue his business. “It leaves you numb,” he says, “I was in a state of shock.” Worse, his neighbors thought he must be a drug dealer, or the government wouldn’t have treated him so. He’s working on getting his money back, but the IRS employs many lawyers with many delaying tactics.

Even well-meaning governors, like Larry Hogan of Maryland, buy into the conviction now, evidence later, movement. Citing a “heroin epidemic,” he recently vetoed Senate Bill 528, a bipartisan attempt to reform the state’s civil asset-forfeiture law. A working-class governor with working-class values should have known better.

He took the advice — and felt the pressure — of the Maryland State’s Attorneys Association, the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, and the Maryland Sheriffs Association, all of whom were threatened with losing their “off the books” revenue. He signed the veto.

The governor conceded in his veto message that “asset-forfeiture laws can be abused by those in charge of their implementation.” He is directing aides to organize a working group to study the issue. Alas, he wants to stack the working group — some might call it “structuring — with representatives of “at a minimum, the Department of State Police, local law enforcement, the Maryland State’s Attorneys Association, the Office of the Attorney General, and the Office of the Public Defender.” This sounds like recruiting the neighborhood foxes to guard the Dominecker hens. The hens, like the rest of us, deserve more relief than that.

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