In the year 1215, Magna Carta provided a freeman of England with the right to a trial in a fixed, local law court, and protected him from being “amerced [fined] for a slight offence, except in accordance with the degree of the offence; and for a grave offence he shall be amerced in accordance with the gravity of the offence, yet saving always his contentment; and a merchant in the same way, saving his merchandise” – i.e., even for a “grave offence,” a man shall not be deprived of the ability to make his living.
Four-fifths of a millennium later, a 21st-century American merchant does not enjoy the rights of his 13th-century English forebear. The Economist reports on yet another case of “civil forfeiture” by the corrupt and diseased IRS – a Michigan grocery store owned by the Dehkos family:
Fairly often, someone takes cash from the till and puts it in the bank across the street. Deposits are nearly always less than $10,000, because the insurance covers the theft of cash only up to that sum.
In January, without warning, the government seized all the money in the shop account: more than $35,000. The charge was that the Dehkos had violated federal money-laundering rules, which forbid people to “structure” their bank deposits so as to avoid the $10,000 threshold that triggers banks to report a transaction to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
This is a quintessentially Washingtonian form of shakedown. First, they pass a stupid law that has the effect of making millions of routine, law-abiding transactions appear suspicious (in this case, deposits over $10,000). Then, the vast bloated support state of the Republic of Hyper-Regulation adjusts accordingly (in this case, insurers who’ll cover a mugging of $9,975 decline to cover one of $10,037). But by then, just to cover themselves coming and going, Washington has passed another stupid law making it an additional crime to avoid committing the original crime (thus, “structuring” your deposits to avoid the $10,000 threshold).
Meanwhile, no one has prosecuted or even convicted the Dehkos family — or even charged them with anything. Because these days, unlike in King John’s, the state doesn’t need to:
Prosecutors offered no evidence that the Dehkos were laundering money or dodging tax. Indeed, the IRS gave their business a clean bill of health last year. But still, the Dehkos cannot get their cash back. “They offered us 20%,” says Ms Thomas, “But if we settle, it looks like we’re guilty of something, which we’re not.”
Oh, yeah, the coup de grâce: The grand old federal tradition of “settling.” In the shakedown state, nobody’s guilty or innocent, it’s all about the settling.
My weekend column observed en passant that “tyranny is always capricious” and that, in a land of 300 million, people seem to figure the likelihood of it happening to them is comparatively remote. I wouldn’t be so sure about that, as an ever broker state grows ever needier. As the next senator from New Hampshire, I will pledge to outlaw “civil forfeiture.” You should demand no less from your representatives.