Asset Forfeiture

Trump Wants To Raid an Asset Forfeiture Black-Box Fund To Build His Border Wall

"Exactly what sources and what individuals this money comes from is obscure, and it's obscure because that's the way the federal government wants it."

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CHRIS KLEPONIS/UPI/Newscom

President Donald Trump's plan to build a wall along the southern U.S. border will partially rely on the Treasury Department's asset forfeiture fund, according to news reports, but that money comes from a secretive fund potentially rife with civil rights abuses.

Among other sources, the Trump administration reportedly plans to use $600 million from the Treasury Department's Asset Forfeiture Fund, which holds revenues from asset seizures by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and agencies under the Department of Homeland Security, such as Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Since 2014, ICE and CBP have seized more than $4 billion worth of property that was allegedly used in crimes, according to government records obtained by Splinter. Among the seized assets were human remains. The Treasury Department's forfeiture fund had a balance of $2.2 billion as of fiscal year 2017.

But it's unclear how many of those cases were criminal forfeitures, in which the property was forfeited after the federal government obtained a criminal conviction against a defendant; and how many were civil forfeitures, wherein the government seized property on the mere suspicion that it was connected to criminal activity.

Unlike the Justice Department, which makes its asset forfeiture database available to the public, the Treasury Department has stonewalled public records requests for its database. In 2016, the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm, filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Treasury Department and CBP to obtain their forfeiture databases.

"The federal government is actively trying to conceal detailed information about where this money comes from," says Robert McNamara, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. "We have sought it through Freedom of Information Act requests. They have refused to turn it over, and we're in active litigation trying to get our hands on information about where this money comes from."

"The problem with these civil forfeiture cases is the problem with civil forfeiture, which is that it involves taking property without requiring the government to actually prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone is a criminal," McNamara continues. "Exactly what sources and what individuals this money comes from is obscure, and it's obscure because that's the way the federal government wants it to be."

One such example is the case of Kentucky farmer Geraldo Serrano, whose 2014 Ford F-250 pickup truck was seized by CBP agents after they found five stray bullets in it. CBP attempted to forfeit Serrano's truck under the dubious suspicion that he was involved with international arms smuggling. Serrano, backed by the Institute for Justice, had to fight for two years to get his truck returned, even though he was never charged with a crime.

CBP regularly seizes large amounts of cash at airports, even when there is no evidence of criminal activity. An Albanian immigrant, Rustem Kazazi, who became a U.S. citizen in 2011, sued CBP last year after he was stripped searched and had $58,000 in cash seized from him at a Cleveland airport. Kazazi says he was traveling back to Albania to possibly buy property and converted his savings to cash. CBP claims they suspected Kazazi was involved in drug trafficking or money laundering.

However, the agency failed to file a claim against Kazazi's money within the 90-day deadline, and then failed to return his money after the deadline passed. Last June, the U.S. government agreed to return nearly all of the cash, although Kazazi says it seized $770 more than it claimed.

Civil asset forfeiture has been roundly criticized by civil liberties groups and a wide, bipartisan swath of lawmakers at both the federal and state level because of abuses just like these. More than half of all U.S. states have passed some form of asset forfeiture reform over the last decade in response to similar cases.

A 2017 report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) found that, between 2012 and 2014, the IRS seized more than $17 million from innocent business owners using obscure anti-money laundering rules and civil asset forfeiture. The inspector general found money seized and forfeited by the IRS was legally obtained in 91 percent of a sample of 278 structuring investigations it reviewed. As Reason reported:

The investigation was launched in 2014, when media investigations and several lawsuits by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm, highlighted the cases business owners who had their life savings seized by the IRS for violating anti-"structuring" rules.

The rules are intended to stop money launderers from evading federal banking regulations by making small cash deposits under $10,000, but IRS agents ruthlessly pursued cases against small business owners when there was no other evidence or indication of criminal activity. For example, The New York Times profiled the case of Carol Hinders, an Iowa woman runs a small, cash-only Mexican restaurant. In 2013, two IRS agents showed up at Hinder's door and told her the agency was seizing $33,000 from her bank account for structuring violations. She was never accused of a crime.

In response to public outrage, the IRS announced in 2014 it was changing its asset forfeiture policies to only pursue cases where there is other evidence of criminal activity.

The IRS has previously released some limited data on structuring cases to the Institute for Justice, which leads them to believe the Treasury Department is intentionally stonewalling them.

"We know that they have this information, and we know that they can give it up, but they don't want to give us the entire database," says Jennifer McDonald, a senior research analyst at the Institute for Justice, "which leads us to believe that there is something they don't want us to know about these funds."

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34 responses to “Trump Wants To Raid an Asset Forfeiture Black-Box Fund To Build His Border Wall

  1. Robert Mueller needs to hurry up and remove Drumpf from office.

    #ItsMuellerTime
    #NoBanNoWall

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    2. By golly, Mexico’s actually going to pay for it!

      1. 2016 woke – “Trump’s saying Mexico will pay for it? What a delusional rube.”

        2019 broke – “Civil asset forfeiture has been roundly criticized by civil liberties groups and a wide, bipartisan swath of lawmakers at both the federal and state level because of abuses just like these.”
        “What about Ted Cruz’s ‘El Chapo Act’, to use the drug lord’s billions through forfeiture to pay for the wall? You haven’t mentioned that.”
        “Shut up”

    3. So, Trump is using money accumulated by Obama’s overreaching executive branch to build the wall. Can’t think of a better use for it.

      1. I gut as well put it to good use.

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  2. Criminals broke the law, the federal government is legally seizing their illegal assets, Trump is legally using the legally seized assets to build his legal war, and I am supposed to have a problem with that?

    Get out of here with your lefty gibberish, TreasonNN!

    1. Wait until you find out how government agencies use permitting fees and fines to avoid appropriation requests.

      Does Reason not know how our government works?

  3. SEE?! WE TOLD YOU TRUMP WAS A TERRIBLE AWFUL PRESIDENT!

  4. So ALL of the assets were stolen from (forfeited by) illegal sub-humans from Mexico? THAT is how the Mexicans will pay for the wall?

    Inquiring minds want to KNOW, dammit!!!

    1. All of the proceeds received from people who have made money from women that were brought here as described:

      “You can’t have them tied up in the backseat of a car or a truck or a van. They open the door, they look. They can’t see women with tape on their mouth or three women whose hands are tied.”

      Will also be forfeit and used to fund the wall. That help?

  5. “The federal government is actively trying to conceal detailed information about where this money comes from,” says Robert McNamara, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. “We have sought it through Freedom of Information Act requests. They have refused to turn it over, and we’re in active litigation trying to get our hands on information about where this money comes from.”

    B-b-but since these assets were seized from people who haven’t been charged with a crime, it would be an invasion of their privacy for the government to disclose their personal information! If the Feds aren’t using that exact argument, that they’re keeping that information secret for the protection of the people whose assets were seized, they’re missing a step – and I’ll eat my hat.

  6. Oh, great. Let’s set another precedent while we’re at it….let’s provide incentive for a tsunami of federal asset forfeiture incidents so Carrot-top can REALLY redecorate his toy room….and then when the next administration comes in they can have a go at their own bucket list…..et cetera,
    et cetera

    1. Precedent? Just because you were ignorant to the practice prior to trump doesnt make it a precedent.

      1. Is he new here? Or one of our resident progs with a shiny new name?

  7. Among the seized assets were human remains.

    Well that’s a pretty important asset if you want to build a wall that deters. Hopefully, there’s enough human remains so that when quartered and beheaded and stuck on spikes it will be visible from sea to shining sea.

    Damn Trump is a lot smarter at this wall-building stuff than I’ve given him credit for. He would never have gotten Congress to pass a bill that included human remains for his wall.

  8. If the courts don’t slap Trump down, I don’t see how he avoids impeachment. Nobody wants an executive branch that’s above the law except rabid Trumpers.

    1. Impeachment for actions that are within the legal powers that Congress gave to the President? How does that fit the impeachment threshhold for “high crimes and misdemeanors”?

      1. Shhh…. proggies don’t want to be burdened by facts or actual knowledge.

    2. Ummm, you don’t seem to realize 99% of the money was seized under Clinton, Bush and Obama.

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  10. Thank God for Trump. Civil libertarians have been screaming for years for action on curtailing asset forfeitures and Congress has done nothing, and the courts less than nothing. But now that Trump is using the revenue to build the wall we can expect half a dozen bills fast tracked in Congress, and a dozen National injunctions by Ninth circuit judges in the next 30 days.

  11. This is what I hate about politics. No one actually stands for anything. It’s all a stupid game between the two parties where nothing matters except disabling the other side at strategic times. IT’S TIME FOR A THIRD PARTY!! Or at least some non partisan politicians.

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  15. Judging by the headline focusing on the President it would be nice if Reason put the same effort into covering Trump as exposing the mainstream Leftwing mob that has corrupted Universities, journalists, Mainstream media, social media targeting Free Speech & actual Libertarian values or perhaps they are part of the same corrupt system.

    The real danger to Libertarian values is not Trump, it’s institutions espousing objective values all jumping on the same bandwagon to destroy a person while ignoring the cultural plaugue dividing America and the western world. I hope Reason finds a backbone and lives up to it’s name.

    1. Trump’s pragmatism has resulted in at least some libertarian friendly outcomes. Reason just hates him because he’s kind of an asshole and against open borders.

  16. That doesn’t sound like any change at all. Who decides if there is evidence of illegal activity? Were those bullet holes “evidence of illegal activity”? There should be conviction of illegal activity, and a jury finding that the asset was directly involved in the illegal activity, although ideally, there would simply be NO asset forfeiture, merely the standard fines and punishments for crime because asset forfeiture means that people are not treated equally under the law. You are only fined one pickup truck if you own a pickup truck in the first place. I don’t understand why no one has taken this to the court to argue unequal treatment under the law.

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