A penalty for no crime? (Editorial)

(April 19, 2016) Late last month, the U.S. Justice Department announced it was rebooting a controversial practice that allows state law enforcement agencies to avoid restrictions on keeping large portions of cash and assets seized during investigations by allowing them to prosecute some cases under less restrictive federal law.
This announcement arrives roughly a year after the department said, in response to widespread public criticism, it was suspending the program. This troubles us.
Delmarva farmers need only look to one of their own to see the risks of civil asset forfeiture and this agreement, known as the Equitable Sharing Program, which critics say incentivizes state law enforcement agencies to “investigate” citizens and seize money and assets solely to pad their budgets.
Consider the story of Randy Sowers, owner of South Mountain Creamery in Middletown, Md.
He told The Delmarva Farmer last year that each week over 30 weeks in 2011, his wife deposited the proceeds from farmers’ market sales into a bank account. At the request of a teller, he said, she made her deposits in increments just beneath $10,000 — about $9,500 each time — so the bank could avoid a federal law that demands it notify the government of all cash deposits more than that amount.
Between April and December of 2011, his wife deposited roughly $300,000.
The apparently paperwork-heavy reporting process is required because the federal government uses that information to search for and track all manner of criminals who deal primarily in cash — drug dealers, terrorism financiers, money launderers, tax dodgers and the like.
But Sowers was never charged with a crime. He is not accused of being anything more than a farmer whose wife, he said, unknowingly violated a little-known banking law used to ensnare, among others, dangerous people who are often difficult to catch — a challenge that sometimes requires cooperation between federal and state agencies. That’s one of the reasons the Justice Department says its reviving the sharing practice.
But when FBI agents visited Sowers’ farm in 2012, he said he explained what happened. According to him, they said they understood but informed him they’d seized $60,000 from the account because of how his wife structured the deposits. Under pressure from the government to quietly settle the case and in need of money to prepare for the upcoming planting season, Sowers said he settled with the government, which agreed to let the issue rest — for the price of nearly $30,000.
Let us repeat: Sowers was never charged with a crime.
Since the settlement, Sowers has spoken out repeatedly in the media and even testified before Congress. A House subcommittee has also undertaken his cause, demanding the government return his money and saying in a letter that federal agencies, including the Treasury, the Internal Revenue Service and the Justice Department, have “unfairly harmed American citizens and have undermined Americans’ trust in the government.”
We agree. Though it was federal and not state law enforcement that “investigated” Sowers, the Justice Department’s resumption of its Equitable Sharing Program could make it more likely for farmers or any businessperson who makes large, routine cash deposits, to find themselves victims of a shakedown. Sowers still has not gotten his money back, and it remains stuck in a bureaucratic dispute.
At a minimum, federal and local agencies cannot be allowed to keep seized assets from citizens never charged with a crime (to say nothing of the issues associated with keeping assets from those convicted of one).
We hope members of Congress and others continue their efforts to limit or eliminate this practice and that law enforcement focuses its sights on actual criminals rather than hard-working businesspeople such as Sowers who appear to be victims of startling government abuse.