Abusing the power of government


I am not a reflexive foe of government. I believe in government and that it can and should serve individuals and communities by providing the kinds of services that can only be done collectively, and protect individuals from the power of bigger entities like corporations by creating and implementing regulations that protect workers, keep our water and air clean, and doing all the other things that only a government can do such as maintaining the necessary infrastructure. The Tea Partiers’ goal of eliminating government except for the police and military is something I vigorously oppose.

But some of the actions of the government recently are making it hard for me to support the concept of government as wholeheartedly as I used to and the abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws is one such case. I have written repeatedly about the abuse of these laws whereby state and local municipalities and police and justice systems use their power to seize the assets of people without even charging them with any crime. This has become a major source of revenue for these government entities, who do not seem to have any compunction that they are destroying the lives of many innocent people along the way.

Now comes along a story that the IRS and other federal agencies are also engaging in this terrible practice. What is providing cover for this abuse is the $10,000 rule that was invoked in the ‘war on drugs’. Banks are required to report to the federal authorities any deposits or transfers of $10,000 or more as it was thought that this might constitute drug money. Of course, it was not long before drug dealers figured this out and made sure that their deposits were less than that amount. So the government started requiring the banks to notify them of any pattern of sub-$10,000 deposits.

All this is fair enough. There is nothing wrong in trying to find patterns to detect crimes using the legal means at their disposal. But instead of using any suspect pattern to investigate further to see if there is actual criminal activity, the IRS and other federal agencies are using this database to comb through the records and seize the assets of people who fit the pattern without investigating further to see if they did so for perfectly innocent reasons.

For almost 40 years, Carole Hinders has dished out Mexican specialties at her modest cash-only restaurant. For just as long, she deposited the earnings at a small bank branch a block away — until last year, when two tax agents knocked on her door and informed her that they had seized her checking account, almost $33,000.

The Internal Revenue Service agents did not accuse Ms. Hinders of money laundering or cheating on her taxes — in fact, she has not been charged with any crime. Instead, the money was seized solely because she had deposited less than $10,000 at a time, which they viewed as an attempt to avoid triggering a required government report.

“How can this happen?” Ms. Hinders said in a recent interview. “Who takes your money before they prove that you’ve done anything wrong with it?”

The federal government does.

There are often legitimate business reasons for keeping deposits below $10,000, said Larry Salzman, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice who is representing Ms. Hinders and the Long Island family pro bono. For example, he said, a grocery store owner in Fraser, Mich., had an insurance policy that covered only up to $10,000 cash. When he neared the limit, he would make a deposit.

Army Sgt. Jeff Cortazzo of Arlington, Va., began saving for his daughters’ college costs during the financial crisis, when many banks were failing. He stored cash first in his basement and then in a safe-deposit box. All of the money came from paychecks, he said, but he worried that when he deposited it in a bank, he would be forced to pay taxes on the money again. So he asked the bank teller what to do.

“She said: ‘Oh, that’s easy. You just have to deposit less than $10,000.’”

The government seized $66,000; settling cost Sergeant Cortazzo $21,000. As a result, the eldest of his three daughters had to delay college by a year.

What is significant is that the government seems to be not as zealous in going after the really wealthy who must be routinely transferring huge amounts of money around their various accounts. They are going after the kinds of people who would not have access to high-powered lawyers and friends in high places.

“They’re going after people who are really not criminals,” said David Smith, a former federal prosecutor who is now a forfeiture expert and lawyer in Virginia. “They’re middle-class citizens who have never had any trouble with the law.”

The government seems to be backtracking a bit.

On Thursday, in response to questions from The New York Times, the I.R.S. announced that it would curtail the practice, focusing instead on cases where the money is believed to have been acquired illegally or seizure is deemed justified by “exceptional circumstances.”

That policy should have been the norm all along. This is an astounding admission, that they were seizing money just because they could without bothering to see if it was the fruit of illegal activity.

One important role of government is to balance the scale of power, to protect the rights of the small and weak from being encroached upon by the big and strong. But what the government is doing by these actions is attacking the small and weak because they are easy prey. In doing so, they are acting like any other corrupt or criminal operation. When stories like this proliferate, is it any wonder that the anti-government zealots can find an audience for their efforts to demonize all government?

Comments

  1. smrnda says

    The problem here is the desire to punish crimes without due process. The police and such are not content to bust drug dealers when they are actually dealing drugs. They must be able to bust suspected drug dealers for doing anything that might possibly be consistent with drug dealing, and everybody else is acceptable collateral damage.

    More nonsense from pea brained government thugs high on power and looking for easy money

  2. says

    I am not a reflexive foe of government

    I am. Because it has never, ever, even come close to just doing what it out – namely, serving as an agency for providing necessary community services. There has been a great deal of ink spilled about the legitimacy of government, as if there has ever been a government, anywhere, that met those hypotheticals. Meanwhile, if you look at the amazing death-tolls that result from government-coordinated murder (“war”) there is no way that even the greatest panglossian optimist in the world would say it’s been a fair trade.

  3. says

    Shorter version: Government is abuse.

    If you haven’t read Paul Wolff’s “in defense of anarchism” I highly recommend it. It’s a short, quick, devastating read. The problem, of course, is not how to live together in peace without governments – the problem is that they would never, ever, go quietly.

  4. Holms says

    I am. Because it has never, ever, even come close to just doing what it out – namely, serving as an agency for providing necessary community services.

    Pile of crap. Simply put, without national govermnents, there is no nation wide infrastructure such as roads, electricity grids and the like. Plenty of governments do it poorly, some fail altogether, but if you are somewhere with basic amenities, a reasonable expectation of security, and guaranteed rights, then you are living somewhere where the government is at least partially successful.

    As a particularly noteworthy success, check out the Nordic model of government.

    The problem, of course, is not how to live together in peace without governments…

    So basically the honour system as a form of national law? No thanks.

  5. filethirteen says

    Government, despite its many shortcomings, is our only method of regulating corporations. Be careful what you wish for.

  6. lanir says

    Honestly what disturbs me the most isn’t that this happens. There’s always some potential for corruption in any position of authority. It’s not shocking to find someone has taken a shortsighted approach and tried to take advantage of their percieved ability to make off with the fruits of someone else’s labor. The surprising and frankly disturbing part is that it’s become so common. It just blends in.

  7. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    I am knee-jerk against government action. Only after a long and careful analysis of the pros and cons do I come around to supporting particular government programs.

    I am knee-jerk against government action especially when it relates to “law and order”. I have a knee-jerk reaction to protect criminals, because many times almost everyone, left and right, are not applying proper due process, and both sides forget that a great part of the constitution is limited powers, checks and balances, etc., because if you give assholes in power an inch, they will take it, and it’s so hard to get it back.

    For example, roadside sobriety checkpoints are flagrantly unconstitutional. As is the many laws in many US states where the police can demand your ID without arresting you or other good cause. Many people – including SCOTUS – forget the memo that the fourth amendment is not about privacy. It is about limiting government power to prevent abuse, tyranny, and a police state.

    Also for example, no-announce search warrants are flagrantly ridiculous. That shit never would have flied with the founders. There was a well-established common law practice that you always knock and announce. Otherwise you get cases like this:
    http://www.mintpressnews.com/man-shoots-intruders-turns-knock-raid-now-faces-death-penalty/196865/
    Guy wakes up at 5:30, and sees several men in ski-masks climbing through the window. He shoots them to protect his wife, himself, and his property. Turns out they were police doing a no-announce raid. He’s now charged with assault on police officers, and facing the death penalty.
    Let me quote the article:

    How on earth is this not self defense?

    /rant

    PS: Of course, I think that some level of regulations, preventative measures, taxes, etc., are required, and that the alternative, anarchy, is far far worse. Further, I’m pretty radical socialist in terms of progressive income taxes, progressive estate taxes, and wealth redistribution programs. I’m still ridiculous strict on police powers.

  8. says

    Simply put, without national govermnents, there is no nation wide infrastructure such as roads, electricity grids and the like

    Gotcha. So you presuppose that roads cannot exist without government?

    Did it ever occur to you that people might decide roads are worth having, and develop standards for roads, then implement them as necessary? You appear to be making the usual nationalist assumption that without government to tell them what to do, people would sit around on their thumbs, baaaing like sheep, or something. Guess what? Without government, certain things would still be worth doing, and they’d get done. Certain standards (like a decision to use a particular A/C voltage) would help and those would get done, as well. People would still need to find purpose in their lives, exchange goods, form communities and families, play, dance, sing, fuck, etc. Or do you need your government to tell you how to do all that stuff?

    Besides, fool, we already have roads. What, do you think without government that we’d suddenly go “don’t NEED THOSE ANYMORE” and stop maintaining them?

  9. says

    Government, despite its many shortcomings, is our only method of regulating corporations

    Are you kidding? Without government to protect them, the corporate management might well wind up hanging from trees, feeding the crows.

    What you’re ignoring is that corporations are the government and the scary situation you describe has already come to pass. Government doesn’t protect anyone from corporations, it’s corporations’ whore.

  10. says

    the alternative, anarchy, is far far worse

    It depends on the anarchy that you’re talking about. If you’re talking about the straw-man anarchy of the survivalist movies – Hobbes’ playground of war of all against all, then maybe it’d be bad. But that straw man scenario completely belies millenia of observed human history. Humans are social animals, we tend to group into small tribes and extended families that cooperate. It’s quite clear that we can group into larger organizations that cooperate, too – we’re doing it right now. In case you didn’t realize: it’s not the police or the military that make most people behave and organize to live useful, peacefui lives. And, without police (and fear of police overreaction) communities would be perfectly capable to driving out or disciplining people who were causing harm and refused to negotiate.

    It’s as if people equate anarchism with complete dissolution of the social order, in spite of mountains of evidence that people live socially and successfully all the fucking time. Except when demagogues or religious figures whip them into a fury and convince them to go enlarge their holdings (so the demagogues and priests – the parasitic class – get a larger body politic to suck their nutrients from) … Anarchism isn’t a rejection of politics – there would still be politics – it’s a rejection of centralized and lasting control over groups of people, usually through coercive force.

    Usually someone, at this point, says something about how quickly it would break down when someone militarized and went on a conquering spree. Yes. That is a problem. But it’s an argument that presupposes admitting that everything bad I’m saying about governments is true.

  11. says

    Marcus @9:

    Did it ever occur to you that people might decide roads are worth having, and develop standards for roads, then implement them as necessary?

    I’m reminded of those libertarians or theists who oppose government assistance programs. They’ll say, “people should rely on charity”. Yet it’s been shown that charities cannot meet the needs of the poor. They don’t have the money or the resources (plus in times of economic hardship, when the underprivileged need help the most, people have the least to give). The same problem would exist in your imagined scenario of people building the infrastructure of country.

  12. Dunc says

    Did it ever occur to you that people might decide roads are worth having, and develop standards for roads, then implement them as necessary?

    Sure. History shows, time and time again, that people are perfectly capable of, and indeed actively eager to come up with co-operative arrangements for managing collective endeavours. Those arrangements are generally known as “governments”.

    Anarchism is great as a yardstick to measure your society by, but it never lasts. People simply don’t like it, and it’s inherently unstable. They always re-invent government, and (initially) for perfectly good reasons. Whatever form of government they invent even sticks to those reasons, for a while… But corruption is the political equivalent of entropy – all systems inevitably tend towards it.

  13. Holms says

    Gotcha. So you presuppose that roads cannot exist without government?

    Did it ever occur to you that people might decide roads are worth having, and develop standards for roads, then implement them as necessary? You appear to be making the usual nationalist assumption that without government to tell them what to do, people would sit around on their thumbs, baaaing like sheep, or something. Guess what? Without government, certain things would still be worth doing, and they’d get done. Certain standards (like a decision to use a particular A/C voltage) would help and those would get done, as well. People would still need to find purpose in their lives, exchange goods, form communities and families, play, dance, sing, fuck, etc. Or do you need your government to tell you how to do all that stuff?

    All of which is undone by the question “where does the funding come from for infrastructure in poor areas?” The power of community spirit isn’t going to build shit on its own. So no, my presupposition is actually that these things require redistribution of money.

    Besides, fool, we already have roads. What, do you think without government that we’d suddenly go “don’t NEED THOSE ANYMORE” and stop maintaining them?

    And who built those roads in the first place? Not just the relatively simple small unsealed roads, but the networks of interstate and even international highways required for high tonnage transport?

    Oh, government.

    Without government to protect them, the corporate management might well wind up hanging from trees, feeding the crows.

    Another way of wording that sentence: without government, mob rule. Thanks for that (accidental?) concession.

  14. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Was just reading this again.

    Usually someone, at this point, says something about how quickly it would break down when someone militarized and went on a conquering spree. Yes. That is a problem. But it’s an argument that presupposes admitting that everything bad I’m saying about governments is true.

    Yes. What you say about the evils of government is absolutely true. Your anarchy is worse. It’s self-defeating. All that would happen is some local bandits and warlords would set themselves up to become the local lords to extract taxation, and you would find yourself in a position similar to that of feudal Europe. You cannot do away with government. If you try, someone else will be more than happy to foist one on you.

    Your anarchist rants are beyond stupid. They are childish, naive, and counterproductive.

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