By Eric Boehm | Watchdog.org
Sometimes, not violating the law can get you in trouble with the law.
Just ask the Hirsch family, from Long Island, New York.
Or, better yet, ask Loretta E. Lynch, the U.S. attorney who could be the nation’s next attorney general.
After nearly three years of legal battles, the federal government last week dropped its case against the Hirschs, who own a distribution company that serves convenience stores on Long Island. The government agreed to return more than $446,000 in assets and cash seized by the Internal Revenue Service in 2012 under federal civil asset forfeiture laws, even though the Hirsch family was never charged with a crime.
“This is a significant victory not only for the Hirsch brothers, but for property owners around the country,” said Larry Salzman, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, which joined the Hirsch’s case in 2014. “No American should lose their bank account or other property to law enforcement without even being charged with a crime.”
Why was the IRS interested in the Hirsch Family in the first place?
Under federal law, all bank deposits of more than $10,000 must be reported to the IRS. The Hirschs never deposited more than the legal limit, but the officers who investigated the family wrote in an affidavit that daily deposits ranging from $500 to $9,000 were suspicious enough to seize their bank account.
After cleaning out the family business, the IRS never filed criminal charges against Jeff Hirsch, or his two brothers who co-own the business.
It took two and a half years, but the family is finally going to get its money back.The agreement signed with the federal government requires the Hirschs to pay their own legal fees and clears the feds of any wrongdoing in the case.
The Hirsch case garnered a front-page story from the New York Times and a recent editorial from the Wall Street Journal.
That’s where the plot thickens.
The case was handled, and last week officially dropped, by Lynch, President Barack Obama’s pick to be the nation’s next attorney general, pending approval by the U.S. Senate.
Lynch, the editors of the Wall Street Journal noted in November, has been an “enthusiastic grabber of private assets” during her tenure as a U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
The U.S. Justice Department says Lynch’s office collected more than $113 million in civil forfeiture actions from 123 cases between 2011 and 2013 — including the $446,000 seized from the Hirschs in Long Island.
That’s something Lynch should be asked about when she testifies before the U.S. Senate at her confirmation hearing, the Wall Street Journal argued.
Lynch’s confirmation hearing comes at a time when civil asset forfeiture laws are under intense scrutiny.
The current head of the Justice Department, Attorney General Eric Holder, two weeks ago made headlines by announcing the federal government would suspend its program that shares assets seized through civil forfeiture with local and state police departments.
Holder said the Justice Department would review how it uses civil asset forfeiture laws, a move that won praise from civil libertarians who have spent years pointing out abuses that take place.
But the changes announced by Holder do not place limits on the use of civil asset forfeiture by federal or state law enforcement agencies — it only changes how the goodies get divvied up after the fact.
According to the Government Accountability Office, civil forfeiture has been on the rise in recent years as federal law enforcement agencies seek to pad their bottom lines.
In 2003, forfeiture brought in about $218 million to the federal government, a total that climbed to $450 million by 2011, the GAO reported.
Common Sense For Drug Policy, a nonprofit that advocates for ending the federal war on drugs, estimates federal law enforcement has seized more than $12 billion in cash and assets since 1990.
That total does not take into account the untracked number of forfeiture cases in state and local jurisdictions, which is practically untrackable but estimated to be well into the millions of dollars each year.
Cases like the Hirsch’s have led to calls for reforms at the state and federal level.
Last year, Minnesota became the first state to require a criminal conviction before assets could be seized through a civil procedure. Several other states are working on similar legislation this year.
In a rare show of bipartisanship in Congress, U.S. Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., and U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., have co-sponsored a bill to limit how and when the IRS can use civil asset forfeiture to target taxpayers.
In announcing their legislation, the two congressmen pointed to the Hirsch family and others like them who have had their savings seized without facing any criminal charges.
“In America, a citizen suspected of a crime is innocent until proven guilty. All too often, however, our current laws allow the government to assume guilt without allowing the accused a speedy hearing, depriving them of much needed working capital,” Camp said.