A few reflections on the Sudden Meme for the week, IRS bank account seizures. This one charged out of the gate bucking and snorting this morning, with the New York Times (link above) leading the pack for the mainstream media.
It was all over Fox and the radio shows (e.g., Rush Limbaugh), but it was also picked up by the Old Media and apparently is going to be flogged to death for a while. The basic story is that small account-holders are having their bank assets seized by the IRS, without warrants or any charges being brought, because they routinely make deposits in amounts smaller than $10,000 – as you probably do, if you’re the typical American worker or small business owner. The $10K threshold triggers a federal reporting requirement for the bank, under current federal law (which goes back to the 1970s and ‘80s). The suspicion is that those making smaller deposits are trying to avoid scrutiny.
The small account-holders being hit in this manner end up having to settle with the IRS, and losing large percentages of their perfectly legitimate bank balances, with no recourse. They can’t afford to fight the seizures in court. The cost of that would wipe them out. And these are people who haven’t done anything wrong.
As Tony Oliva says over at Bullets First, this is law being used for an opportunistic scam. It’s outright theft from the American people, organized by an enforcement agency of the federal government.
1. Reflection One. IRS bank account seizures are a subset of a bigger problem with government operations: civil asset forfeiture, which includes property and cash as well as financial assets. (IRS seizures have been reported under the Department of Justice annual civil-forfeiture summary since 1987.)
The New York Times didn’t tell you this next part, but that’s why you read Liberty Unyielding. Here’s what NYT said about the trend of the IRS seizures over time:
[T]he Institute for Justice, a Washington-based public interest law firm that is seeking to reform civil forfeiture practices, analyzed structuring data from the I.R.S., which made 639 seizures in 2012, up from 114 in 2005.
(“Structuring” is the term used to describe making small deposits in order to avoid the $10K reporting requirement.)
But here’s the big picture on total civil asset forfeitures recorded by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2011 and 2012:
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, civil asset net forfeitures surged to $4.2 billion in the year ended September 30, 2012, from $1.7 billion in the preceding year—a one-year increase of over 150%.
Now, make no mistake, as the POTUS-in-Chief likes to say. The problem of civil-forfeiture abuse goes back to at least the early 1990s, and perhaps further (it’s a judgment call when exactly to suspect abuse became rampant, since plenty of forfeitures, such as those of actual drug traffickers or money-launderers, are legitimate and appropriate).
And as John Oliver lays out (hilariously), in the video below, the states have had at least as big a hand in forfeiture abuse as the federal government. (H/t: Zero Hedge; the WaPo link above also has a good summary of questionable forfeiture seizures by the states.)
But the growth in federal revenues from civil asset forfeiture has been fascinatingly exponential under Obama.
2. Reflection Two. The timing of this Sudden Meme is interesting. The growing problem of civil-forfeiture abuse has been written about for years. There was a lot of coverage of high-profile cases in 2013, including Stephen J. Dunn’s Forbes article from February 2013 linked above.
The featured case in Saturday’s NYT article is from 2013 as well. In addition to think tanks like Heritage and CATO, and advocacy groups like the Institute for Justice, the business media and popular websites like Zero Hedge have given the problem plenty of exposure – for years.
But quite suddenly, on 27 October 2014, it has become a “thing,” and everyone in the media is talking about it at once.
(As I write, Fox is running an updated spot on the NYT feature case in the Special Report broadcast.)
A distraction from Ebola in the headlines? A pretext for grandstanding by the administration, one week before the mid-term election?
It’s a serious question. Headlines that come from hatchet-wielding terrorists and illegal-alien cop-shooters just happen when they happen. But headlines based on long-building stories that have been known about for months are groomed and placed.
3. Reflection Three. We should know shortly if there’s going to be any grandstanding by the Obama administration. So far, all its minions have done is promise to “curtail” the use of IRS bank account seizures.
Reflection Three is that this is meaningless. Citizens who have been stolen from outright by their government are supposed to just trust that same government — in fact, the same agency that’s been harassing Tea Party and pro-Israel non-profits for several years now, trying to shut down their political speech, and then lying about hard-drive failures to cover it up — to “curtail” its lawless pilfering?
4. Reflection Four. Do this: hobble the IRS, immediately, with a requirement to submit any proposed asset seizures to the probable-cause warrant process. Every single one of them, regardless of the circumstances.
It doesn’t matter if the U.S. government ever recovers money. Generating revenues to pay for government operations is what taxes are for. It’s not what civil-asset forfeitures are for, and it ultimately doesn’t matter if even ill-gotten gains are ever secured in the custody of the government. It most definitely doesn’t matter enough to put the people’s rights in jeopardy.
What properly matters to law enforcement – including the enforcement operations of the IRS – is whether people are breaking the law. If they are, convict them and lock them up, using due process. If someone besides the government makes off with the money involved, prosecute further, within the limits of the law.
But if the government doesn’t get it all, because of respect for the people’s rights under the Constitution? Memo to government: get over it.
My rights and yours trump any governmental quest to recover money from criminals. If criminals are buying exotic weapons with the money, and posing national security threats, buy bigger weapons. That’s what the government is actually there for: to perform the functions of government, not to behave like a greedy psycho in a family inheritance fight.
How far we have fallen as a society, that one has to lay out and explain these things.
(Note: The John Oliver video below really is well worth your time.)