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Police Misconduct and the Federal Government, Continued

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In the first newsletter I wrote for the John Locke Foundation, I welcomed Eric Holder’s announcement that the Department of Justice — the country’s top law enforcement agency — would be reigning in its out-of-control and abusive civil asset forfeiture program. Unfortunately, as George Leef reports at Forbes.com, the DOJ’s abuse of asset forfeiture continues, and a North Carolina man has recently been its victim:

Lyndon McLellan owns a gas station and convenience store in the little town of Fairmont, North Carolina. Last spring, IRS agents came to his store and informed him that they had just seized his bank account, which had more than $107,000 in it. McLellan was not accused of any crime, but the IRS was suspicious of his bank transactions. Thanks to our "war on drugs," the government insists that we notify it whenever we deposit $10,000 or more in cash — but if someone regularly deposits significant amounts but less than $10,000, the IRS calls it "structuring" and thus suspicious.

After grabbing his money last spring, in December the Department of Justice filed a forfeiture complaint in federal court. McLellan will lose all his money unless he is able to defeat the feds in court.

No American should have to fight a legal battle against the IRS and Department of Justice to get his property back when he has not even been accused of any crime, much less convicted.

At Reason.com, Scott Shackford reports another equally egregious example of asset forfeiture abuse by federal law enforcement:

Joseph Rivers, 22, was traveling from Michigan to Los Angeles by train with $18,000 in cash to pay for a music video. In Albuquerque, DEA agents boarded the train and started asking people questions. They got to Rivers, who told him he was going to shoot a music video and agreed to let them search his stuff.

In one of the bags, the agent found the cash, still in the Michigan bank envelope.

"I even allowed him to call my mother, a military veteran and (hospital) coordinator, to corroborate my story," Rivers said. "Even with all of this, the officer decided to take my money because he stated that he believed that the money was involved in some type of narcotic activity."

Rivers was left penniless, his dream deferred.

"These officers took everything that I had worked so hard to save and even money that was given to me by family that believed in me," Rivers said.

Sadly, the President’s appointment of Loretta Lynch to replace Eric Holder as Attorney General suggests that this sort of abuse will continue. As Adam Bates pointed out at Cato.org at the time of the nomination:

Loretta Lynch zealously defended civil asset forfeiture during her confirmation hearings, and was a devoted practitioner of it as a U.S. Attorney in New York. One of her seizure cases…garnered widespread attention and condemnation, and helped spur the nationwide calls for reform.

The Hirsch brothers, joint owners of Bi-County Distributors in Long Island, had their entire bank account drained by the Internal Revenue Service working in conjunction with Lynch’s office. Many of Bi-County’s customers paid in cash, and when the brothers made several deposits under $10,000, federal agents accused them of "structuring" their deposits in order to avoid the reporting requirements of the Bank Secrecy Act. Without so much as a criminal charge, the federal government emptied the account, totaling $446,651.11.

For more than two years…Lynch’s office simply sat on the money while the Hirsch brothers survived off the goodwill their business had engendered with its vendors over the decades.

That case…finally ended…when Lynch’s office quietly returned the money, having found no evidence of any wrongdoing. The Hirsch brothers and their business survived, but just how many law-abiding small businesses can afford to give the government a 33-month, interest-free loan of nearly half a million dollars?

In view of all this, when the President announces the steps his administration is taking to help state and local jurisdictions deal with police misconduct ("We’re going to be working systematically with every city and jurisdiction around the country"), and when the new Attorney General announces her agency’s investigation of police misconduct in Baltimore ("We have seen from our work in jurisdictions across the country that communities that have gone through this process are experiencing improved policing practices and increased trust between the police and the community."), I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

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Jon Guze is Senior Fellow in Legal Studies at the John Locke Foundation. Before joining the John Locke Foundation, Jon practiced law in Durham, North Carolina for over 20 years. He received a J.D., with honors, from Duke Law School… ...

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