My father, Khalid, has been robbed twice at his convenience store in Greenville, N.C. The first time happened a few winters ago – the thief stole $2,000 before bashing my father in the head with a gun barrel. Then in June 2014, my father was robbed again.
This time, the thief was the United States government. Using a power called “civil forfeiture,” the IRS raided my father’s bank account and seized his entire life savings: more than $153,000. He was never charged with a crime.
After seizing the account, IRS agents and local authorities descended on my father’s store. Without a warrant, they searched the place with dogs and blocked customers from entering.
The agents told my father he had committed multiple “structuring” violations, simply by making multiple cash withdrawals that were under $10,000. But he only withdrew enough money to keep the store operating, and had no idea withdrawing money from his own bank account could risk legal trouble.
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The raid was a total shock. My father’s store was previously debt-free. But now he had to take out a $50,000 line of credit and use our home as collateral to stay in business. I remember sitting across from my father at the kitchen table, wondering when and how he would retire now. In just a few minutes, the government seized everything he had saved in 17 years.
Ultimately, my father was able to get in touch with the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm based near Washington, D.C. On our behalf, IJ launched a media campaign and filed a petition with the IRS, requesting they return my father’s hard-earned cash. In February, the IRS granted his petition, and paid him back in full.
There was one silver lining to my father’s ordeal: It helped spur Congress to act. In September, the U.S. House passed a civil forfeiture reform bill, the Clyde-Hirsch-Sowers RESPECT Act. The bill would allow the IRS to pursue structuring cases only when the money is “derived from an illegal source” or conceals criminal activity. This codifies a policy change made by the IRS in October 2014 – four months too late to help my father. The RESPECT Act, which awaits Senate action, would also create a “post-seizure hearing” so that property owners can challenge a wrongful seizure by the IRS.
In the 1980s, civil forfeiture laws were expanded to stop money laundering and drug trafficking. But now they have become a way for the government to rob innocent business owners across the country. What happened to my father should never happen to anyone else.