Rosenblum Schwartz & Fry

Government's asset-forfeiture powers reined in by House bill

How would you feel if you lived in a country where government authorities could summarily empty your bank accounts and freely avail themselves of assets like your house and car through confiscation? And what it they could simply keep that money and property without ever citing probable cause to suspect you of criminal activity?

You already reside in such a nation.

United States tax officials and police agencies have long exercised plenary and powerful authority to seize citizens' assets through a much misunderstood -- apparently, even by authorities themselves -- and maligned enforcement tool called asset forfeiture.

We referenced that tool in a May 10 blog post, noting its stated intent "to take away the unjust spoils of crime from those who commit lawful acts." Most commonly, organized crime groups are mentioned when the topic of asset forfeiture is raised, with confiscations being allegedly made in response to things like drug trafficking and money laundering.

That is far from routinely being the case, though, with legions of stories having surfaced across the country featuring money and property grabs by IRS agents who never do show probable cause, with the agency simply taking assets from individuals and families without citing any criminal wrongdoing.

Congress has clearly had enough of that, as evidenced by a strongly written bipartisan House bill that was unanimously approved in that chamber last week. The bill's title is impressively lengthy, and will undoubtedly be commonly referred to in the future by its acronym, RESPECT.

The legislation, if ultimately enacted into law, would require the IRS to act with dispatch in its attempts to locate property owners and then inform them of their legal rights to challenge a taking. The property would have to be returned within an abbreviated timeframe absent a showing of probable cause.

Sentiment in the House is quite clear regarding a need for change.

"[B]ullying law-abiding Americans will not be tolerated," noted one House committee principal following the bill's strong endorsement.

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