For years this website has covered the injustices of structuring law, under which persons who deposit or withdraw sums deemed too close to the $10,000 reporting threshold, even if for reasons that prove innocuous, can face seizure of their accounts. Now, under a tax-bill provision unanimously adopted by Congress and signed by President Trump, “the IRS can now only seize property for structuring if it’s ‘derived from an illegal source’ or if the money were structured to conceal criminal activity.” [Nick Sibilla, Forbes; Jacob Sullum, Reason; earlier]
A victory worth cheering for due process and property rights: the U.S. House has unanimously approved a bill that would curb IRS seizure of bank accounts premised on the owners’ having engaged in a pattern of deposits or withdrawals below the $10,000 reporting threshold (“structuring forfeiture”). The measure would 1) codify a recent IRS practice of not keeping money if no underlying illegality were found such as tax evasion or income from unlawful sources; 2) assure account holders a quick hearing after a seizure, a process that can now drag out for long periods. [Institute for Justice press release; Michael Cohn, Accounting Today] The Treasury inspector general found that “in a whopping 91 percent of sampled cases, the laws were being used to forfeit assets from individuals and businesses found to have obtained their income legally.” [Michael Haugen, The Hill, April]
I’ve been writing on this issue for years. The bill, co-sponsored by Reps. Peter Roskam (R-IL) and Joseph Crowley (D-NY), is called the Clyde-Hirsch-Sowers RESPECT Act; I’ve written about the structuring case of Maryland farmer Randy Sowers here and here.
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration has released a new report on federal seizures of funds for the offense of unlawful bank “structuring” — the purposeful keeping of deposits or withdrawals below $10,000, a threshold that triggers reporting by the bank. The report confirms that in the great majority of cases, the funds being deposited or spent were not themselves associated with unlawful activity such as narcotics, tax evasion, or fraud. “The IG took a random sample of 278 IRS forfeiture actions in cases where structuring was the primary basis for seizure. The report found that in 91 percent of those cases, the individuals and business had obtained their money legally.” The seizure of legal source funds appears to have dropped sharply since the announcement of new policies by the IRS in 2014 and the U.S. Department of Justice in 2015. [Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post] Earlier on structuring here.
…despite the U.S. Department of Justice’s promise to stop seizing bank accounts in future in cases where violations of laws against bank deposit “structuring” (keeping them under the $10,000 reporting threshold) are not connected with any underlying crime, it continues to hold on to money already in the seizure pipeline. That includes the $107,000 grabbed from Lyndon McLellan, who runs L&M Convenience Mart in rural North Carolina, according to the New York Times. “You work for something for 13, 14 years, and they take it in 13, 14 minutes.”
To make matters worse, a “prosecutor wrote menacingly to McLellan’s lawyer about the publicity the case had been getting,” warning that press attention “ratchets up feelings within the agency.”
In June of last year the IRS agreed to drop the charges and return McLellan’s money, and now a federal judge has told the agency to pay the store owner $20,000 for his legal costs, according to my Cato colleague Adam Bates, who has other links and thoughts on the case: “If the government cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person engaged in criminal activity, it should not be able to punish them as if they’re guilty.”
I’ve written often on the surreal world of “structuring” law, in which keeping bank deposits or withdrawals below a reporting threshold is a federal crime whether or not you are aware of the structuring law and whether or not the underlying money flow is for or from any illegal activity or intended to evade any law. Of particular interest, I’ve written about who can get away with structuring (Eliot Spitzer) and who can’t (you). The law, along with a separate charge of lying to federal investigators, appears to have tripped up former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Dennis (“Denny”) Hastert in what a federal indictment suggests were hush money payments over misconduct before he arrived in Congress. I’m quoted in Francine Kiefer’s coverage for the Christian Science Monitor. More commentary: Ken White, Popehat.
This is welcome news from the U.S. Department of Justice, and rather than try to rewrite I’ll just quote at length what my Cato colleague Adam Bates wrote:
[On March 31] Attorney General Eric Holder issued new guidelines to federal prosecutors tightening the rules for seizing assets for so-called “structuring” offenses.
Under the Bank Secrecy Act, structuring occurs when someone is suspected of arranging their financial transactions as to avoid triggering a report to the federal government by the financial institution. Some of civil asset forfeiture’s most egregious abuses are the result of federal prosecutors utilizing this nebulous statute to empty the bank accounts of unwitting citizens and small businesses who are never charged with any crime or even aware that their transactions are considered illegal.
The new rules require:
1. That structuring seizures against people for whom there is no criminal charge be based upon probable cause that the funds were either generated by unlawful activity or intended for use in anticipated unlawful activity. Alternatively, prosecutors must procure a warrant from a court and with the approval of either the U.S. Attorney (for Assistant U.S. Attorneys) or the Chief of the Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section (AFMLS) (for Criminal Division trial attorneys).
2. That when the prosecutor determines subsequent to a structuring seizure that the government lacks the necessary evidence to succeed at either a civil or criminal trial, the seizing agency must return the full amount.
3. That when a prosecutor seizes property pursuant to suspicion of structuring, the prosecutor must file either a criminal indictment or a civil complaint, or receive an exception from either a U.S. Attorney or Chief of AFMLS within 150 days or else return the seized assets.
4. That all settlements must be complete and in writing. Informal settlements are expressly prohibited.
I’ve been writing about the outrages of these structuring cases for years, especially the feds’ ambush of Randy and Karen Sowers’s successful Middletown, Md. dairy farm and ice cream maker, South Mountain Creamery. In yesterday’s Washington Post, Rachel Weiner tells how the Sowers’ story “gave civil forfeiture reformers a powerful symbol”, especially after the Institute for Justice got involved. I’m quoted:
“The South Mountain case happened to be one of these that captured the imagination,” said Walter Olson, a blogger for the libertarian Cato Institute who has written about the Sowers case. “Once you’ve bought ice cream for your kids from one of their little trucks, the name sticks in your memory.”
Cato’s Caleb Brown interviews Larry Salzman of the Institute for Justice in this podcast about the federal practice of seizing and keeping small businesses’ bank accounts when it claims to find a pattern of deposits below the $10,000 reporting threshold. Earlier here, etc.
I’m a little late in getting to this, but last month Radley Balko wrote the definitive blog post on the appalling state of federal bank structuring law, which makes it a felony to arrange bank transactions in quantities of less than $10,000 so as to avoid reporting requirements that kick in at that threshold. He hits virtually every point we’ve made in this space over the past couple of years, including the trend toward “freestanding” structuring prosecutions not arising from any underlying criminal activity, the close connection to forfeiture law, the enlistment of banks as a covert surveillance/informant network not disclosed as such to customers, Congress’s removal of willfulness as a condition of the offense, the unusual concentration of cases coming out of the state of Maryland, the white-knight role played of late by the public-interest law firm Institute for Justice, and of course the jarringly atypical leniency extended to the most famous structurer of all, New York’s Eliot Spitzer.
The immediate news event that prompted the coverage, summarized by Eugene Volokh: a Seventh Circuit decision, in U.S. v. Abair, reversing and remanding for retrial the conviction of an Indiana woman convicted for withdrawing her own money from her bank in violation of the statute so as to finance her purchase of a house; the government took the house from her in forfeiture.
Headline, from WWJ: “Sterling Heights Gas Station Owner Says IRS Grabbed $70K From His Bank Account For No Reason” Mark Zaniewski, “owner of Metro Marathon in [suburban Macomb County], said the IRS emptied out his bank account twice over the course of a week this spring.” No charges have been filed; Larry Salzman of the Institute for Justice, representing Zaniewski, says the accounts were seized on suspicion of bank “structuring” (knowingly arranging deposits to fall below $10,000), even though some deposits were over that threshold. Salzman says his client has been waiting seven months for his cash and in the mean time is unable to get a hearing before a judge. IJ recently took on a structuring case involving a grocer in nearby Fraser, Mich. Earlier on structuring and its intersection with forfeiture law here, here, here, etc.
Update via Dan Alban on Twitter: “BREAKING: IRS voluntarily dismisses Michigan forfeiture cases, will return seized money to owners of family grocery store and gas station. Doesn’t get feds out of IJ’s separate constitutional lawsuit re: right to prompt hearing, Dehko v. Holder.”
The Institute for Justice is defending the owners of a grocery store in Fraser, Mich. who saw their bank account seized under forfeiture law on suspicion of structuring deposits (keeping them below $10,000 on purpose to avoid reporting). Video here. We’ve been covering the results of structuring law, and its intersection with forfeiture powers, for a while now, and its nice to see the issue attracting the notice of a group as formidable and high-profile as IJ.