Detroit Free Press: States have changed forfeiture laws, now it's the federal government's turn
Terry Dehko and Randy Sowers aren’t household names, but their stories serve as cautionary tales. Both had tens of thousands of dollars seized by the Internal Revenue Service without any criminal charges filed against them. Both were law-abiding citizens. And both had to fight in court to get their hard-earned savings back.
Their money was seized using our nation’s abuse-prone civil asset forfeiture laws. While these laws may have originated with good intentions — helping law enforcement target criminal enterprises — the civil asset forfeiture system has become ripe for profiteering and perversely incentivizes police to confiscate private property to boost their budgets. Too many innocent Americans have had their constitutional rights trampled in the process, and the road to reclaim government-seized property is expensive, time-consuming, and filled with potholes.
In Terry Dehko’s case, the IRS seized more than $35,000 from a small family grocer in Michigan. No charges were filed, but Dehko was forced to prove his grocery store was making small bank deposits for insurance reasons and not laundering money. This, of course, reversed the proper burden of proof and it took months of legal battles for Terry to get his savings rightfully returned from the feds.
Randy Sowers, a Maryland dairy farmer, suffered through a similar experience. The IRS seized money in his bank account on suspicion alone and without evidence of wrongdoing. After his life was upended, Sowers needed legal assistance to go to court and prove his innocence. Only after a lengthy process did he eventually settle his case to get a portion of his money back.
Stories like these have become increasingly common in recent years. Civil asset forfeiture abuses have led to reform efforts in 30 state capitols, including both of our home states. Earlier in May, a bipartisan group of Michigan lawmakers enacted new measures that will better protect an individual’s due process rights. In 2016, the Maryland legislature also enacted a state law to rein in civil asset forfeiture abuse.
Despite this state level progress, substantial reforms are still needed nationally. That’s why we introduced the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act, also known as the FAIR Act.
The FAIR Act includes additional safeguards to the forfeiture process to increase accountability and prevent citizens from having personal property seized without due process. It raises the standard of proof that first must be met for the government to seize property, restoring an individual’s fundamental right of being innocent until proven guilty— rather than proving innocence after the fact.
Our legislation also eliminates the abusive practice of equitable sharing, which provides a monetary incentive for local, state and federal law enforcement to team up on forfeiture cases to circumvent state laws and share revenue from confiscated assets.
In addition, the FAIR Act reforms our nation’s structuring statutes — making the government prove criminal activity instead of simply inferring it from small deposits and making people prove their innocence — to prevent what happened in both the Dehko and Sowers cases.
The sweeping reforms we’ve proposed have been heralded by a diverse coalition of civil rights and taxpayer advocacy groups, ranging from the ACLU to FreedomWorks. The momentum is on our side to restore important constitutional protections.
In a sharply divided Washington, few issues bring ideological opposites to consensus. The need to overhaul our federal forfeiture laws is one of them. It’s time for Congress to seize the moment and pass the FAIR Act.
Tim Walberg, a Republican from Tipton, represents Michigan’s 7th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat Takoma Park, Md., represents Maryland’s 8th District in the U.S. House. This op-ed originally appeared in the May 30 edition of the Detroit Free Press.