John Oliver offers commentary laced with predatory wit on his HBO show, “Last Week Tonight” (available on YouTube). His June 8 dissection of FIFA, the international governing body for what I call metric football (some call it soccer), was a hilarious classic.

Recently, I was pointed to his Oct. 5 segment, which discusses a truly horrifying law.

Oliver opened with a clip of Ezekiel Edwards of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project describing “civil asset forfeiture.”

Edwards said this little-known procedure is “a mechanism by which the state and federal governments can seize people’s property without having to convict them of a crime. Most people can’t afford to hire a lawyer to challenge it, and it really is legalized robbery.”

Oliver’s segment drew heavily from a recent series by The Washington Post.

According to The Post, “There have been 61,998 cash seizures made on highways and elsewhere since 9/11 without search warrants or indictments … totaling more than $2.5 billion. State and local authorities kept more than $1.7 billion of that, while Justice, Homeland Security and other federal agencies received $800 million. Half of the seizures were below $8,800. Only a sixth of the seizures were legally challenged, in part because of the cost of legal action against the government.”


In 41 percent of those challenges, The Post said, partial refunds were made — but the recipients often had to sign agreements not to sue the government over the remainder.

And although there is a federal ban on using seized funds for salaries or other budget support, 298 departments and 210 task forces used seized funds for 20 percent or more of their annual budgets since 2010, The Post reported.

The paper noted that minorities tend to have funds taken more often. As one example among hundreds, Mandrel Stuart, an African-American who owned a restaurant in Staunton, Va., had more than $17,000 confiscated from him after a traffic stop for a minor offense. He eventually got his money back, but lost his business in the meantime because he couldn’t pay his overhead.

“I paid taxes on that money,” Stuart said. “I worked for that money. Why should I give them my money?”

It isn’t only cash that gets seized. Cars, boats and even planes are parceled out to various agencies, and a Pennsylvania motel owner almost lost his business because police alleged some units had been rented for drug deals, even though the owner had reported such offenses when he suspected they were occurring.

Two former leaders of the Justice Department’s forfeiture section, John Yoder and Brad Cates, wrote a Post column Sept. 18 headlined, “Government self-interest corrupted a crime-fighting tool into an evil.”


They said, “Our forfeiture laws presume someone’s personal property to be tainted, placing the burden of proving it ‘innocent’ on the owner. What of the Fourth Amendment requirement that a warrant to seize or search requires the showing of probable cause of a specific violation?”

A reform statute passed in 2000 is seldom enforced, they said, even though “civil asset forfeiture and money-laundering laws are gross perversions of the status of government and a free citizenry. The individual is the font of sovereignty in our constitutional republic, and it is unacceptable that a citizen should have to prove anything to the government.”

And of course it gets worse: The New York Times late last month headlined a story, “Law Lets IRS Seize Accounts on Suspicion, No Crime Required.”

Yes, the IRS is doing exactly the same thing with cash that the police are doing.

Under a law designed to catch criminals who make large cash deposits, The Times said, “The government has gone after run-of-the mill business owners and wage earners without so much as an allegation that they have committed serious crimes. The government can take the money without ever filing a criminal complaint and the owners are left to prove they are innocent. Many give up.”

In a case the paper highlighted, Carole Hinders, an Iowa grandmother who has run her Mexican take-out restaurant on a cash-only basis for decades, had $33,000 taken from her business account because she deposited it in amounts less than $10,000.


The feds call this “structuring,” which is illegal when it is purposely used to avoid requirements to report deposits over $10,000.

Hinders, whose bank never informed her about the law, made smaller deposits to avoid keeping cash at her business overnight. But the IRS just took her money — apparently, simply because it could.

She has had to max out her credit cards to keep her business going as she sues to get her own money back.

As Oliver noted in his HBO segment, it’s difficult to report a robbery when the victim has to describe the thief by saying he looks exactly like the officers who are investigating the crime.

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer and speaker. Email at: [email protected] — Iowa grandmother Carole Hinders has run her Mexican take-out restaurant on a cash-only basis for decades. The IRS took $33,000 from her business account because she deposited it in amounts less than $10,000. — Iowa grandmother Carole Hinders has run her Mexican take-out restaurant on a cash-only basis for decades. The IRS took $33,000 from her business account because she deposited it in amounts less than $10,000.

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