Civil Asset Forfeiture

Border Patrol and IRS Sued for Stonewalling FOIA Requests on Asset Forfeiture

IRS charges nonprofit $750K to see FOIA records on asset forfeiture.

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Tetra Images Tetra Images/Newscom

Want to see an IRS database of all the property it seizes from citizens? It'll cost you $750,000. How about a U.S. Customs and Border Protection database of seizures? Sorry, the CBP says the list of stuff they take from the public isn't a public record.

Such are the travails of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm that is suing the two federal agencies for stonewalling its public records requests for asset forfeiture databases.

The Institute for Justice, which has launched numerous state-level lawsuits challenging civil asset forfeiture laws, filed a lawsuit Thursday against CBP and the IRS, saying the two agencies are flouting the Freedom of Information Act.

"The lack of transparency surrounding forfeiture is deeply troubling, especially considering the vast power law enforcement has to take property from people without so much as charging them with a crime," The Institute for Justice's research director Lisa Knepper said in a press release announcing the suit. "The public ought to know how forfeiture is being used."

According to an inspector general audit, the federal government forfeited approximately $4.6 billion in assets under the Treasury Department's asset forfeiture program in 2015. How often and from whom the government seizes property is a critical question for civil liberties groups, who argue the practice of civil asset forfeiture lacks due process protections and creates perverse profit incentives for police. Numerous states have enacted bipartisan reforms of asset forfeiture laws in response to these criticisms—New Mexico abolished it altogether—but the federal government still doles out hundreds of millions of dollars in asset forfeiture funds to state and local law enforcement that participate in joint drug task forces.

What makes the IRS and CBP's opacity so, well, transparent is that the Institute says the Justice Department handed over records from its asset forfeiture database in just three months—a mere blink of an eye in federal government time—and at no cost.

Yet, when the Institute for Justice submitted a FOIA request in March of last year to the IRS for records from its Asset Forfeiture Tracking and Retrieval System (AFTRAK) database, the agency responded six months later, saying it would charge $753,760 for the Institute to see the documents.

The IRS rejected the Institute for Justice's application for a FOIA fee-waiver, which are available to nonprofit groups and media working in the public interest. In its lawsuit, the Institute argues it is entitled by statute, as a nonprofit organization, to a fee-waiver, and that the IRS estimate of labor and costs to complete the request are wildly overblown.

Meanwhile, CBP rejected the Institute's March 2015 request for records from its Seized Asset and Case Tracking System (SEACATS) altogether, first claiming the request was "overbroad" and then that the entire database was categorically exempt from public records requests because it contains law enforcement techniques and procedures.

In its lawsuit against CBP, the Institute for Justice says the CBP's claims are "implausible and improper." The database, it says, contains things like the type, value, and date of seizures, not sensitive law enforcement information.

"There is no legal basis for CBP's assertion that these data constitute law enforcement 'techniques or procedures' exempt from FOIA disclosure," the group says.

A spokesman for CBP says it is the agency's policy to not comment on pending or ongoing litigation.

The IRS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On his first day in office, President Obama pledged to run "the most transparent administration in history." In 2015, the Obama administration set a record for denying and redacting FOIA requests, according to an Associated Press analysis.

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Civil Asset Forfeiture Transparency FOIA

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25 responses to “Border Patrol and IRS Sued for Stonewalling FOIA Requests on Asset Forfeiture

  1. “The public ought to know how forfeiture is being used.”

    Well, Customs is just going to have to seize more assets to pay for lawyering up against these lawsuits.

  2. saying it would charge $753,760 for the Institute to see the documents.

    Not $753,758 or $753,764, but exactly $753,760. Being accurate with accounting numbers is the govt’s strongsuit.

    1. The precision is how you know it’s not bullshit.

      1. True, but, “Oh yeah? You want that? It’ll cost you a million smackeroos.” has a certain charm to it.

  3. New Reason writer?

    1. He looks like a young Rolf Harris.

  4. Idiots arguing over Charlie Brown and Bible verses in a public school while they’re government continues raping them.

    We hear all about the ‘War on Christmas.’ What about the ‘War on Us!?’

  5. Budget cutting idea!

    Eliminate Border Patrol salaries. Tell them they can just keep whatever they take from people crossing the border.

    Who doesn’t want to get paid in cocaine?

  6. OT: Could someone tell me how Reason did with their webathon in the end? I am assuming since I can’t find anything about it that they missed their mark, but I am curious as to what it ended up being.

    1. Last I saw, they were maybe 2/3 of the way there on the last day. There’s always a bolus of last-minute contributions, so who knows?

    2. I was just thinking the same thing. It’s not my fault. I kicked in my shekels.

  7. I’ll never forget when I argued the claim with friends that the vast majority of us are nothing more than peasants, with zero power to contest or control any aspect of the state and how it act towards us — same as it has been for millennia. Not to mention that a majority of people still never move more than a matter of miles from their place of birth and end up marrying people from their village; but that’s beside the point of State interaction.

    Wasn’t much a dialogue really, they mostly just got really salty about being called peasants.

    1. Wasn’t much a dialogue really, they mostly just got really salty about being called peasants.

      What are they going to do about? The only people you’re not allowed to insult is the king or his men.

  8. they should have just run a private email server.

  9. Asset Forfeiture Tracking and Retrieval System (AFTRAK) database, the agency responded six months later, saying it would charge $753,760 for the Institute to see the documents.

    If they actually have an asset forfeiture tracking retrieval system, and they can’t instantly produce the records, it’s not an asset forfeiture tracking retrieval system. The end.

  10. “Asset Forfeiture Tracking and Retrieval System (AFTRAK) database, the agency responded six months later, saying it would charge $753,760 for the Institute to see the documents.”
    Probably built by H1-B visa using programmers. Nothing is quite as secure as a write-only database!

  11. Gotta appreciate the balls, ripping off a bunch of money to produce records about how much money you’ve ripped off.

  12. What? Looters being cagey about telling the public how much they’re looting? I’m shocked!

    -jcr

  13. You can’t really blame them. The records might undermine people’s faith in government.

    /Brooks

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