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IRS Promises to Curtail Property Seizures After Abuses Come to Light

2 min readBy: Joseph Bishop-Henchman

Over the weekend, the New York Times reported the case of Iowa restaurant owner Carole Hinders:

For almost 40 years, Carole Hinders has dished out Mexican specialties at her modest cash-only restaurant. For just as long, she deposited the earnings at a small bank branch a block away — until last year, when two taxA tax is a mandatory payment or charge collected by local, state, and national governments from individuals or businesses to cover the costs of general government services, goods, and activities. agents knocked on her door and informed her that they had seized her checking account, almost $33,000.

The Internal Revenue Service agents did not accuse Ms. Hinders of money laundering or cheating on her taxes — in fact, she has not been charged with any crime. Instead, the money was seized solely because she had deposited less than $10,000 at a time, which they viewed as an attempt to avoid triggering a required government report.[…]

Using a law designed to catch drug traffickers, racketeers and terrorists by tracking their cash, the government has gone after run-of-the-mill business owners and wage earners without so much as an allegation that they have committed serious crimes. The government can take the money without ever filing a criminal complaint, and the owners are left to prove they are innocent. Many give up.

The Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, is representing Hinders in her challenge, and notes that the IRS is making hundreds of such seizures a year but pursuing criminal action in only a fifth of them. IJ is representing clients in a number of similar cases.

The IRS responded to the New York Times:

After a thorough review of our structuring cases over the last year and in order to provide consistency throughout the country (between our field offices and the U.S. attorney offices) regarding our policies, I.R.S.-C.I. will no longer pursue the seizure and forfeiture of funds associated solely with “legal source” structuring cases unless there are exceptional circumstances justifying the seizure and forfeiture and the case has been approved at the director of field operations (D.F.O.) level. While the act of structuring — whether the funds are from a legal or illegal source — is against the law, I.R.S.-C.I. special agents will use this act as an indicator that further illegal activity may be occurring. This policy update will ensure that C.I. continues to focus our limited investigative resources on identifying and investigating violations within our jurisdiction that closely align with C.I.’s mission and key priorities. The policy involving seizure and forfeiture in “illegal source” structuring cases will remain the same.

I’m skeptical of how much the IRS is conceding here. As Professor Jack Townsend notes, the government position has generally been that they use forfeiture only in extraordinary circumstances and offers remedies to return the property. Now that we know this hasn’t been true, we shall have to wait and see if IRS actions appreciably change or if they just keep doing what they were doing.