Though the confirmation process for the next Attorney General has been delayed for the next two weeks amid lack of Republican support for nominee Loretta Lynch, it is particularly troubling that the media coverage has failed to discuss Lynch’s position on civil asset forfeiture during this time. Civil asset forfeiture is a particularly egregious abuse of power, allowing the government to seize property and cash if it merely suspects wrongdoing, even with no evidence of or charges with a crime.
Lynch has been particularly lucrative as the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. The Wall Street Journal noted in November that “Ms. Lynch’s office is a major forfeiture operation, bringing in more than $113 million in civil actions from 123 cases between 2011 and 2013, according to the Justice Department.” Furthermore, Lynch herself boasted to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle last year that the “Eastern District of New York, working collaboratively with other offices as well as on its own, collected over $904 million in criminal and civil actions in Fiscal Year 2013.”
The Daily Eagle went on to describe how additionally, “working with partner agencies and divisions, the Eastern District forfeited another $1,319,038,046 in assets tainted by crime. Forfeited assets are deposited into the Department of Justice Assets Forfeiture Fund and the Treasury Forfeiture Fund and are used to restore funds to crime victims and for a variety of law enforcement purposes.”
One such forfeited case in which Lynch was directly involved was that of the Hirsch Brothers, going back to May 2012. Amazingly, this case was only recently resolved this past January once questions began to swirl after Lynch became the AG nominee. The facts surrounding the ordeal are despicable:
“In May of 2012 the Hirsch brothers, joint owners of Bi-County Distributors in Long Island, had their entire bank account drained by the Internal Revenue Service working in conjunction with Lynch’s office. Many of Bi-County’s customers paid in cash, and when the brothers made several deposits under $10,000, federal agents accused them of “structuring” their deposits in order to avoid the reporting requirements of the Bank Secrecy Act. Without so much as a criminal charge, the federal government emptied the account, totaling $446,651.11.
For more than two years, and in defiance of the 60-day deadline for the initiation of proceedings included in the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000, Lynch’s office simply sat on the money while the Hirsch brothers survived off the goodwill their business had engendered with its vendors over the decades.”
It’s no coincidence that Lynch’s office suddenly returned the money on January 20, 2015 on the eve of the confirmation hearings, having found no wrongdoing or crime after nearly three years. The Hirsch Brothers were well represented by the Institute for Justice, who has helped other victims of asset forfeiture.
When asked about the “fairness” of civil asset forfeiture during her confirmation hearing by Senator Mike Lee, Lynch responded that “civil and criminal forfeiture are very important tools of the Department of Justice as well as our state and local counterparts.” Speaking directly about civil asset forfeiture, she claimed that such forfeiture is “done pursuant to supervision by a court, it is done pursuant to court order, and I believe the protections are there.” Unfortunately, this was patently untrue in the case of the Hirsch Brothers, who never had a court date or a hearing in front of a judge to plead their innocence during their entire 2+ year ordeal with Lynch’s office.
The problem of civil asset forfeiture is that “authorities can take money (or other property) and then dare the owner to battle through legal obstacles to get it back. To do that, the owner must prove innocence. Charge someone with a crime and the burden of proving guilt is on the government, but confiscate property under civil asset forfeiture and the government keeps the spoils unless the owner is able to prove his innocence. That is not the way our system of justice is supposed to work.”
Now we face the likelihood that the next Attorney General of the United States is one who has repeatedly and gleefully engaged in the process of civil asset forfeiture, putting fiscal gain above due process and civil liberties.