If you take something that does not belong to you, you give it back. That lesson of basic kindergarten ethics is the subject of an advanced legal strategy IJ is using to get Khalid “Ken” Quran’s money back after it was seized by the IRS using civil forfeiture.
Ken came to America with only $3,000 in savings and purchased a convenience store on a dusty plot of land in rural North Carolina. He spent years behind the counter, working to build a better future for his kids. Then, just as Ken’s children approached graduation and Ken began to think about retirement, the government used civil forfeiture to take his entire bank account—more than $150,000.
At 60 years old, Ken was forced to take out a substantial loan, using his family home as collateral, to keep his business going.
Ken was targeted for civil forfeiture under so-called “structuring” laws. As we have discussed in previous issues of Liberty & Law, structuring laws make it a crime to avoid federal bank reporting requirements by withdrawing or depositing cash in amounts less than $10,000. Structuring laws were intended to target serious criminals but have been applied to small business owners accused of nothing more than doing business in cash.
IJ has represented numerous property owners in civil forfeiture actions brought by the government under structuring laws, and in each case the government eventually backed down and dropped the forfeiture action. The IRS changed its policy after IJ brought national media attention to what the IRS was doing. But Ken’s situation is different: The case came to IJ’s attention after the forfeiture was complete, meaning it is too late to fight the forfeiture in a court of law.
The government took Ken’s money in secret, using harsh strong-arm tactics. Government agents went to Ken’s store directly after seizing his bank account, searched the store with dogs, demanded that he sign a piece of paper consenting to the forfeiture of his money, yelled that he was disrespecting their authority by refusing to sign and threatened to visit his wife to pressure her as well if he did not sign. Ken reluctantly signed the paper, although he cannot read English well and did not know what it meant.
Because the passage of time now bars a judicial claim, IJ is pursuing a new way to get Ken his money back: We have filed an administrative petition, called a remission petition, on Ken’s behalf. A remission petition is, in many ways, similar to a pardon petition. The IRS can use the remission process to return forfeited property to its lawful owner whenever the IRS concludes that doing so will advance the aims of justice.
Ken is not alone. IJ is filing a second remission petition on behalf of Randy Sowers, a dairy farmer from Maryland who had $29,500 seized under structuring laws. And if the government agrees to return the money that it took from Ken and Randy, it will open up a path for hundreds or even thousands of other property owners to seek similar relief.
It was wrong for the IRS to take Ken’s and Randy’s money. Even the IRS thinks it was wrong: They have changed their policy so they won’t go after people like Ken and Randy in the future. That policy change comes too late to directly benefit Ken and Randy, but if it would be wrong for the IRS to take the money today, it is equally wrong for the IRS to keep the money it seized in the past. The IRS should do the right thing and give Randy and Ken their money back.
Robert Everett Johnson is an IJ attorney and the Institute’s Elfie Gallun Fellow for Freedom and the Constitution.