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Free Minds & Free Markets

Could the IRS Empty Your Bank Account?

A little-known rule lets feds steal money from people who haven't been convicted—or even accused—of a crime.

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After cash has been seized, property owners must wait a minimum of 120 days to get into court, and they must file two separate claims to preserve their right to their property. Even once the property owner is before a judge, litigation can stretch on for months, even years. The Institute for Justice report found that the average structuring case between 2005 and 2012 took almost a year to resolve, with the longest case taking more than six and a half years. Throughout that period, the property remains in possession of the government.

About a third of structuring forfeitures are resolved via "administrative" forfeitures that are not overseen or approved by a federal judge. In the case of North Carolina convenience store owner Ken Quran, for instance, a group of IRS agents and local police went directly to his store after seizing over $150,000 from his bank account, and demanded that Quran sign a form "voluntarily" agreeing to forfeit the seized funds. Intimidated, he agreed to sign. When he later took his case to a local lawyer, the lawyer advised him there would be no point in seeking to contest the forfeiture. "I feel like the United States government stole my money," Ken says. "I did nothing wrong."

Even where a judge is involved, the court's role is often little more than approving a settlement negotiated by federal prosecutors. Against the time and expense of litigation, the government typically offers property owners a tempting proposition: Settle with us, let us keep half of what we seized, and we will return half your money today. Business owners, struggling to keep their businesses running without needed funds, often have little choice but to agree.

Forced Settlement
After the IRS agents left his farm, Randy Sowers contacted a lawyer. His lawyer, in turn, reached out to the responsible federal prosecutor, Stefan Cassella, who explained right off the bat that the case would be resolved by negotiation. Both sides would propose a number below the total sum seized by the government, and the parties would then agree on a forfeiture amount.

This approach was no accident. Justice Department policies expressly state that "settlements to forfeit property are encouraged."

The Sowers needed the seized money to buy supplies for that year's crops. Their bank had closed the farm's account, and Randy was left explaining to his business partners why scheduled transactions were not going through. Meanwhile, fighting the case could easily end up costing more in legal bills than the amount of money that had been seized.

Sowers also had to consider the consequences if he refused the settlement. The same day that the government seized his account, it served him with a grand jury subpoena, raising the possibility that he could be charged criminally for structuring—and face up to five years in prison. The government's proposed settlement confirmed this implicit threat: In exchange for Sowers giving up his money, the government would agree not to pursue criminal charges.

Frustrated, he gave an interview to the Baltimore City Paper explaining that "we had no idea there was supposedly a law against" making small cash deposits. "Now we just feel like putting [our cash] in a can somewhere," he added.

Amid the settlement negotiations, Sowers' words became a sticking point. Cassella demanded he agree to less favorable terms than the prosecutor had offered in a similar case. When Randy's lawyers asked for an explanation, he wrote in an email that the other property owner "did not give an interview to the press."

Lacking any realistic route to fight the government, in May 2012, three months after the government seized his money, Sowers signed an agreement to forfeit $29,500.

'They Need to Give It Back'
Not long after Sowers agreed to settle, the mainstream media began scrutinizing structuring more, causing the government to start a hasty retreat. A decisive turn appeared to come in October 2014, when the IRS announced a new policy change. Absent proof that the property owner was engaging in some other criminal activity, it would no longer pursue "legal source" structuring cases.

The IRS announced this shift when The New York Times ran a front-page investigation into two structuring cases litigated by the Institute for Justice on behalf of the Hirsch brothers from Long Island and Carole Hinders, who ran a Mexican restaurant in rural Iowa. Five months later, the Justice Department announced a similar shift "restricting civil or criminal forfeiture seizures for structuring until after a defendant has been criminally charged or has been found to have engaged in additional criminal activity."

Yet those policy changes are purely voluntary. Since structuring laws still remain on the books, a future administration could easily reverse course and start seizing Americans' hard-earned money again. Moreover, while the shifts may prevent these types of cases from arising in the future—assuming the new policy is faithfully applied—they do nothing for the victims whose money was seized before the guidelines changed.

Between 2007 and 2013 alone, the IRS seized over $43 million from over 600 property owners in cases involving no allegations of wrongdoing apart from the mere act of evading bank reporting requirements. For those individuals, the government's policy change came too late.

Hoping to establish a precedent that other property owners could follow, the Institute for Justice in July 2015 filed petitions with the government on behalf of Ken Quran and Randy Sowers, seeking the return of their confiscated cash.

A bipartisan coalition in Congress has lined up behind that effort. In August 2015, members of the House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew urging the agency to "return funds as appropriate in cases that do not meet the IRS's current policy that the funds must have come from an illegal source."

Fortunately for Quran, in February 2016 the agency agreed to return the entire $153,000 that it had unjustly seized.

Sowers still hasn't heard an answer to his petition. The federal government has never explained why, if it is willing to return the money that it seized from Quran under the structuring laws, it is not willing to do the same for him.

"I'm just waiting for the government to do the right thing," he says. "Not just for me, but for everyone in this same situation. The government shouldn't have taken our money, and they need to give it back."

Photo Credit: Jason Keisling

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  • K Endres||

    The fact of these forfeitures is amazingly disturbing. This is government corruption enshrined by law. Thank God for the Institute for Justice. I am going to join Texans for Accountable Government in order to support a local group that is taking on the fight against these reprehensible seizures.

  • Riven||

    It's quite disturbing. I was explaining some instances of civil asset forfeiture to my fiance, and he was just floored. "No way. There's got to be more to the story than what you're telling me. They can't just take someone's money like that."

    They can and they do, I insisted.

  • WTF||

    That of course is part of the problem. There is little public outcry, because people just can;t believe it actually happens the way it does. They assume there must be "something more" going on that justifies the seizures. Because the truth is just too appalling to be believable for most people.

  • sarcasmic||

    We are raised to believe government is the people who help us, who deliver justice, and who are the ones you go to when you are being robbed.

    That they are in fact don't help us, they deliver injustice, and are the robbers, is too much of a blow for most people to handle. It's easier to just deny the truth.

  • Riven||

    It is a huge part of the problem, I agree. It's nice to think that the government isn't there to fuck you, but ... they are.

  • ULOST||

    That is why it is best to get fucked on your own mattress stuffed with money. Cut out the gubermint middle man unless you like a very unsatisfying 3-way. Note of caution; make sure the prostitute is not looking when you retrieve the funds to render payment. No FDIC for those situations.

    Lesson: Keep as little money in the bank as possible. And do not, I repeat, do not answer questions. For the habitually submissive; Lie to them or make a mistake of fact and you will be grabbing your ankles should provide sufficient counsel to resist submitting.

    Practicing verbally resisting authoritah. Seriously. The day will come when you will need it. Social conditioning is an mf'er when you are threatened.

  • ULOST||

    "Practice" Obligatory correction lest I be forever discredited by a self-righteous grammar nazi on a mission. My ego could not take it.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    There is little public outcry, because people just can;t believe it actually happens the way it does.

    It's another example of the "that can't happen here, in this country" mindset. People think this is the kind of shit that only happens in Banana Republics or Communist countries, not here in the "land of the free." Newsflash: it can and it does.

  • BYODB||

    It's the 'big lie'. I hate it when Hitler is right.

  • Hamster of Doom||

    If they did, it would be scary. So it must not be true.

  • Riven||

    What cracks me up is my fiance is also a libertarian... so he doesn't trust the government, either. That said, it's hard for him to wrap his mind around them doing something like this because it just doesn't even seem to have a basis in justice...or reality.

  • SugarFree||

    Fiance, fiance, fiance... OK, we get it... You're getting married and you're all happy and shit. Stop rubbing our faces in it.

  • Hamster of Doom||

    I, personally, think you would be quite happy to have your face rubbed in it.

  • Lee G||

    She's not actually getting married. She's just trying to get the commentariat to stop stalking her.

    IT WON'T WORK RIVEN.

  • This Machine||

    Damn it, Lee, she's running the long con, where she pretends to have a fiancé to stop the commentariat from stalking her, which she knows won't work, but does it anyway, because it makes it more believable that she's an attractive female and not a 46-year-old diabetic from Kentucky, because catfishing. Sheesh. Try and keep up.

  • SugarFree||

    Sheesh. Try and keep up.

    Sounds like someone didn't get the memo.

    (And other burns from the 80s.)

  • This Machine||

    Sounds like someone didn't get the memo.

    Smooth move, Ex-Lax!

  • Riven||

    What if I said that I now have...short hair?!

  • Lee G||

    Sinead O'Connor, Annie Lennox, Keira Knightley or Janet Reno short?

    These things are important.

  • Riven||

    Janet Reno short. Like a pixie cut, but not Rosemary's Baby style.*

    *I specifically told the gal cutting my hair that if I looked like Twiggy in Rosemary's Baby, she'd wish I was the mother of some demon spawn.

  • SugarFree||

    What if I said that I now have...short hair?!

    Oh, you're marrying a woman. That's cool.

  • Riven||

    Lol! He has shorter hair, so I think that still makes him "the man" in the relationship.

  • SugarFree||

    Oh, so he identifies as male? Also cool. I'm all about inclusiveness.

  • sarcasmic||

    If it makes you feel any better, my wife left me last week.

  • SugarFree||

    It does make me feel better. Thank you.

  • SugarFree||

    (But seriously, that sucks.)

  • Riven||

    It does suck, Sarc. I'm sorry to hear it.

    Now congratulate me about my impending day of bliss.

  • Lee G||

    If it makes you feel any better, my wife left me last week.

    Not sure if serious....

  • Hamster of Doom||

    I'm sorry that happened, Sarc.

  • ||

    Why would that make any of us feel better? That sucks, sarc.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    If it makes you feel any better, my wife left me last week.

    What, she couldn't handle sharing you with a bowl of Jell-O anymore?

    I know, I know too soon. Sorry about that, seriously.

  • Sevo||

    The folks at IJ deliver the goods. They get my support and if they don't get yours, I'd suggest giving them a look.

  • Detroit Linguist||

    Second that. They do great stuff. They don't always win, but they do so surprisingly often.

  • Hank Phillips||

    It is true IJ does good work. It is able to do that good work precisely because your libertarian party vote speaks ten times louder as a spoiler vote for a clear individual rights platform than a vote thrown away on the looter kleptocracy. There is nothing like the IJ under corrupt monopolistic regimes.

  • ULOST||

    "...precisely because your libertarian party vote speaks ten times louder as a spoiler vote..."

    Hey Hank, you're dreaming. You obviously do not understand how party elites think and respond. Elites understand the ebb and flow of power and know that time and their tweeked manipluations will assure its return to Them. To Them, LP is an annoying fly to be swatted and used from time to time. So, while you think you are poking Them in the eye, they are poking you in the ass. Stay thirsty and pre-lube, my friend.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    "I hope they give other people's money back. And beyond that I just hope they quit taking people's money."

    You greedy bastard.

    Structuring is just another legislative-manufactured tornado used by armed bureaucrats to blow out the match of recreational drug commerce. Or something like that.

  • Akira||

    The idea of "structuring" was always a bit strange to me. The government sets a limit on how much you can deposit without extra scrutiny, but going below it will trigger what seems to be even worse scrutiny? Going below the government-imposed limit is a crime??

    What's next? Are they going to start pulling people over for going 63 in a 65?

    "B-b-but these drivers were deliberately going below the speed limit just to avoid attention from law enforcement! They MUST be hiding something!"

  • Idle Hands||

    All you have to do is come to the state of VA where the state will seize money for inactivity, not depositing or withdrawing funds, from anyone not notify you and pretend it's doing you a favor when you attempt to get it back during a process that takes months.

  • Lee G||

    I'm not sure how I would respond to something like that. Probably wouldn't be with politeness.

  • Idle Hands||

    If you think that's bad I just recently found out the VA department of taxation never processed my return properly. I never received my refund, like $10, called up to see what was going on it took me a total of 12 hours over the course of three days talking to like three different people to find out my name didn't match my social security number. Turns out they processed my return under my mothers name who I don't live with and has been filing jointly with my father for the past 25 years. I don't know how that is even possible as my form filed had my name my social and drivers license number on it. The state of course wants ME the person who did everything right to straighten this out by faxing a copy of my Social and Drivers license to their office a process which they can't discuss with me how it works because they can't prove my identity and hope it gets fixed. When I asked how that would solve the problem they said those were legal documents, when I pointed out the tax return I submitted had all that information on it was a legal document the operator told me our conversation was over. I'm probably going to be audited for the next 5 years.

  • Lee G||

    Time for a tax attorney.

  • Brochettaward||

    You are saying that in Virginia, the government seizes your money simply for...inactivity?

    It's like the wet dream of every Keynesian. If you save money, the government just takes it because you aren't using it right.

  • Idle Hands||

    yes it's the most fucked up thing on the planet that nobody talks about. They are more than likely seizing money from old senile people who never read their statements. I noticed it right away, because I actually read mine and it still took me months to get it back.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Pennsylvania does this, as well. But the institution will usually notify you in advance that the commonwealth is about to come sniffing for extra cash from your account.

  • Hank Phillips||

    structuring (v.): thoughtcrime
    Example: Now that plank 2 of the Communist Manifesto has been ratified as Amendment 16 to the United States Constitution, all structuring of deposits triggers asset forfeiture sharing for the common good.

  • Set Us Up The Chipper||

    These IRS agents should be given to Ramsey Bolton for re-education.

  • rudehost||

    "I'm just waiting for the government to do the right thing"

    other civilizations will arise. There will one day be lemon-soaked paper napkins. Till then there will be a short delay. Please return to your seat

  • sarcasmic||

    + 42

  • Glide||

    Boy, this was a bit gut-twisting to read. It's one thing for government to ban big sodas because FYTW. We can all laugh at that. Ha ha, look at the silly government.

    The thought of getting your life savings stolen by your democratic government because FYTW, though, is truly a sickening thought.

  • Hamster of Doom||

    At least we have sensible laws and a firm sense of justice when it comes to the government confiscating children. You know, when it's really important, we still have rights.

    Shh. Go back to work. It'll all be okay.

  • John C. Randolph||

    Once again I am reminded that Rehnquist was a cunt.

    -jcr

  • spqr2008||

    The part of bankers not knowing that structuring is a crime is ridiculous. When I was a cashier at Wal-Mart, the training included some basics to run Moneygram and cash transfers, and included stuff on how structuring was illegal, and it was against policy to encourage a customer to send less at a time to avoid scrutiny.

  • Mr. Flanders||

    Yeah when I worked at a community bank a couple years ago, we had tons of training on this. The training itself was required by law if I recall correctly.

  • widget||

    Yesterdat, the IRS announced that it will return $29,500 seized from Maryland dairy farmer Randy Sowers

    'Yesterdat' was corrected with editor's note, then re-deployed on my next refresh. See, the squirrels rule.

  • commodious||

    Just to be clear, is the $29,500 in addition to the original settlement, or merely upholding their end of the bargain?

    Also, these settlements need to include a reasonable return, attorney's fees, and a steep penalty paid out of the agency's operating budget. Otherwise there's really no disincentive.

  • Lee G||

    How can we have nice things if they have to pay it back with penalties?

  • Mustang||

    United States v. $62,936.04 in U.S. Currency

    When does this become United States v. AR-15?

  • ||

    I'm stunned that someone hasn't gone off the deep end and offed some of these fuckers.

    If those two fuckwits had been out at my farm and ended their visit with "Oh yeah, by the way, we just cleaned out your bank account." I'm not sure I'd be able to resist popping them.

  • ||

    By the way for anyone putting together govt lists, that previous comment was hyperbole. I don't even own a farm.

  • ULOST||

    Yeah, yeah. But would you hypothetically help Them to buy the farm and would this farm include a wood chipper. Buzzards gotta eat, same as worms. Enquiring minds want to know. That's entertainment.

    Now, everyone go check the Gooogle My Activity page to see what that evilness has on you and has been transferred to the computer farm in Utah as part of your permanent record.

    Note to FBI, CIA, DHS, IRS, FDA, OSI, ATF, DEA and et al; this is a disclaimer that all comments by this poster, including past and future, are complete satire, hyperbole or whatever else that absolves me of criminal responsibility. I kid because I love.

  • Mustang||

    I didn't mean that in a revolutionary sense, I mean when does someone use the same argument that they use to confiscate money to start confiscating guns? My admittedly simplistic understanding is that they seize the money without a charge because it's the money that was involved in the crime and not the person, even if the money wasn't. Why not use the same argument for guns? Clearly this has passed muster in the courts.

    Note: I don't support the confiscation of any sort of weapons. You can't beat the bad guys unless you can understand them.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Please stop giving them ideas.

  • This Machine||

    The Institute for Justice once again demonstrates that they deserve every penny (and probably more) of every donation they get.

    I'm glad he got his money back, but in a just world, it wouldn't stop there, and we'd have the heads of those unaccountable bureaucrats on pikes in the front lawn, with their intestines pitchforked all up in the big tree out front.

    (NOTE TO ALL U.S. ATTORNEYS: THIS IS NOT A JUST WORLD AND THE ABOVE IS NOT A THREAT. FUCKERS.)

  • Hamster of Doom||

    Oh, I'm sure the disclaimers are just melodrama on your part. We have free speech. The government doesn't persecute people for mere words in America.

  • This Machine||

    Quite right you are, Hamster! Our government is great and I was only kidding around!

    *slaps HoD jokingly on back, leans in closer, whispers:*

    Hail Hayek...

  • Hamster of Doom||

    *whispers back*

    The Turtle moves!

  • Lee G||

    The last sentence has been officially redacted.

    You were saying?

  • Maven Houlihan||

    My favorite part of all of this is that when the IRS announces they will no longer seize money unless they suspect criminal activity or deliberate structuring it means their previous policy was to take money even when they had no suspicion of criminal activity or deliberate structuring.

    Someone wrote and carried out a policy to take money from people even when there was no suspicion of any wrongdoing whatsoever. Those people are still employed, or collecting pensions. This is why I believe in hell.

  • geo1113||

  • pronomian||

    If it is true that sowers was persuaded by the teller to structure his funds, then he should sue the bank. The teller knows better, or should know better, than to try to avoid a Currency Transaction Report. They aren't overly time consuming.

    The law states:
    "no person shall, for the purpose of evading the CTR (Currency Transaction Reporting) :
    • Cause or attempt to cause a bank to fail to file a CTR or a report required under a geographic targeting order or to maintain a record required under BSA regulations."

    The teller was complicit in trying to evade a CTR and he should sue the bank and her/him. The teller fits the definition of structuring: "a person structures a transaction if that person, acting alone, or in conjunction with, or on behalf of, other persons, conducts or attempts to conduct one or more transactions in currency in any amount, at one or more financial institutions, on one or more days, in any manner, for the purpose of evading the [CTR filing requirements]."

  • kbolino||

    I'm still at a loss as to how the power to levy income tax confers a power to compel bank transactions to be reported. They have stretched the "implied powers" doctrine beyond reason.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Writing for the majority, Justice William Rehnquist conceded that the act "might well surprise or even shock those who lived in an earlier era" but upheld the law as a necessary response to "the heavy utilization of our domestic banking system by the minions of organized crime."

    Am I a bad person* for hoping that 1) there is a hell and 2) William Rehnquist is burning in it for all eternity while being double analed by a rusty chainsaw and the DOOMCOCK?

    In an acerbic dissent, Justice William Douglas argued that it was "sheer nonsense" to suggest that "all bank records of every citizen 'have a high degree of usefulness.'" "Suppose Congress passed a law requiring telephone companies to record and retain all telephone calls and make them available to any federal agency on request," he presciently suggested. "Would we hesitate even a moment before striking it down?"

    BWAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!1!!!!!!111!!!!!!! Oh man... that's a good one, I needed a laugh.

    *Rhetorical question, of course I'm a bad person. I comment on this site, therefore "bad person."

  • BYODB||

    "Suppose Congress passed a law requiring telephone companies to record and retain all telephone calls and make them available to any federal agency on request," he presciently suggested. "Would we hesitate even a moment before striking it down?"

    Hahaha, yeah they'll never do that! Am I right? Wait...what? They already did, and they didn't strike it down?! Oh...I see now...

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Against the time and expense of litigation, the government typically offers property owners a tempting proposition: Settle with us, let us keep half of what we seized, and we will return half your money today.

    Government is just the things we do small businesses we extort and the money we steal together.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    It's a pity any Constitutional Convention would be swamped by Hobby Protesters, Progressive Twits, and Social Justice Warriors, because the Second Amendment needs some re-woarding;

    "The occasional horsewhipping or lynching of an obnoxious Government stooge being necessary for the preservation of the Liberty of the people, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

  • BYODB||

    "Because these cases are brought against the property in question—the Sowers' case was captioned United States v. $62,936.04 in U.S. Currency—protections that govern criminal proceedings do not apply. Owners of "guilty" property have no right to counsel."


    And this is why it's useful to keep up the narrative that guns kill people, not people. It's easy to convict an inanimate object of crimes, they don't even make arguments to defend themselves!

  • GamerFromJump||

    I swear, I wish the Bayverse version of the Allspark was real. I'd take it to a police evidence locker (firearms section), and give them a reason to blame the gun.

  • CATT||

    So.....let me get this straight. A person will fall under suspicion if their bank deposits are over $10K. And, a person will fall under suspicion if their bank deposits are under $10K. Wow, that sounds about right for anyone to get screwed. My divorced daughter, had the IRS, confiscate her funds in her bank account 3 times, leaving her with $0 + bank fees to pay, because of it. Her ex-husband owed back taxes which she was not liable for, but the IRS took her money, anyway. And, all three times the money in there had been child support payments. These people just have too much power.

  • EscherEnigma||

    I'm curious if any of these folks ever sued their accountants or bank tellers for malpractice.

  • Tyler.C||

    Having been a teller, its BS to say that the teller didnt know that asking someone to structure is illegal. You are trained to look for it.

  • Lloyd Clucas||

    This is fascism. It needs to be named as such. Those who support or refuse to change such "laws" need to be named as such.

  • Eeyore||

    I wonder if they brought a case against my dick if they could confiscate it? It seems like this sort of rule of law killing semantic bullshit could allow them to steal, murder, or whatever the fuck they want.

  • josh||

    is there another instance where obeying the law as written is also considered a crime?

  • toolkien||

    Savvy people used the tax code, as written, to gain a benefit that was never intended, then it is cancelled out as not being "within the 'spirit' of the law". Over 20 years ago a taxpayer I heard of executed - consecutively - perfectly legal tax laws with reference to their partnership - stepping up basis, restating asset values, and some others, to get a fairly large tax free result. It was quashed even though it was all perfectly sound, again, as written. The long story short, is if the law can be used to grind you down, they will use it, use their own laws against them, and they will simply waive it away. The tyranny we've been living under has been evolving for quite some time, it's just that most people are ignorant of it.

    I spent several years just trying to keep my ass out of the line of fire, figuring at some point there'd be a swing back toward sanity (yes, from the Republicans). But all I got was tax "refunds" to every American paid for with massive new debt and Medicare Part D from the Republicans and the wake up call that they were just as Statist as the Democrats. Ive now accepted that at some point, down the line, there isn't going to be any way to keep my ass low enough.They are going to come after me at some point. The reckoning is not that far off. When my total taxed/debased/regulated burden hits 65%-70% of my labor, civility is not an option. It's at about 55% right now, more than half. And even the Republicans see this as a "good start".

  • Heddin_South||

    So the story doesn't say how the gov't knows you are evading the reporting requirement. There is by definition no report submitted to the gov't. And yet somehow they make a correlation between activities in accounts at multiple banks. What kind of spy system is at work here?

  • VartAndelay||

    Not sure how it works in the U.S., but in Canada it's mandatory to report deposits greater than $10K; however, a bank can voluntarily report amounts under $10K at their discretion. You're fucked either way.

  • Uncle Jay||

    Could the IRS Empty Your Bank Account?
    A little-known rule lets feds steal money from people who haven't been convicted—or even accused—of a crime.

    Of course they can.
    The SCOTUS said so in its civil asset forfeiture cases.
    Where have you been?
    But that is not the point.
    We live in a socialist slave state, and therefore all the little people are guilty until proven innocent.
    But then, isn't that what our founding fathers wanted?

  • SezWhom||

    This would be the same IRS that said "Who, me?" concerning the Tea Party. They don't protect us from crooks, they are the crooks.

  • VartAndelay||

    Remind me how the U.S. is different from Mexico?

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Great article. Well researched, well written. Makes a compelling case. Thank you to Reason and the authors.

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