Federal agents seized all of the money in an organic farmer’s bank account even though he and his family were never charged with a crime – and simply because they made an innocent mistake in depositing their money.
Randy and Karen Sowers innocently watched the government take $62,000 of the money they had made selling milk from grass-fed cows and eggs from cage-free chickens at Washington, D.C.-area farmer’s markets.
“It is not right that the government can take all of your money on the basis that they think you have done something wrong,” Sowers told the Ways and Means Committee of the US House of Representatives in February. “Also, when the government shows up at your door with armed agents and hands you a subpoena, your whole life is turned upside down.”
The case has galvanized opponents of what is called civil forfeiture and united politicians on both sides of the aisle.
The Sowers’ nightmare began on Feb. 29, 2012, when two agents from the US Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Unit showed up at their South Mountain Creamery Farm in Maryland. They’ve owned the farm since 1987. The agents questioned Sowers about his bank account, admitted that he likely was an honest businessman and gave him a subpoena for his bank records. They also informed him that the government had seized all of the money in the account.
Making the Wrong Deposits Can Lead to Seizure
The money was seized because Sowers and his wife had made multiple cash deposits of less than $10,000 after a teller suggested they do so. The Treasury Department considers that practice structuring, or an attempt to evade federal law that requires forms on deposits of at least $10,000. Off The Grid News has reported that small businesses and law-abiding citizens all over the country have had cash seized because of it.
(Listen to Off The Grid Radio’s in-depth report on civil forfeiture here.)
“My wife brought a cash deposit to our bank and was told by the teller that if the deposit was less than $10,000, the bank would not have to fill out an IRS reporting form. So, for those farmer’s markets in which we collected more than $10,000, my wife would keep some cash on hand for farm expenses, and deposit the balance. … I want to make clear that my wife did not do this for any reason except that she believed it was saving paperwork for the bank, and not because she thought she was avoiding any law.”
Said US Representative Peter J. Roskam (R-Illinois), “This is not a meth lab. This is not a mafia front group. There’s no drug ring. These are people who have been in the dairy business a long time.”
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US Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) apologized to the farmer for what had been done.
Sowers and his wife have a large following in the D.C. area because of the quality of their products.
The couple eventually got some of the money back, but Uncle Sam kept $29,500 – and likely won’t ever give the rest of it back, The Washington Post reported.
Not the Only Case
Sowers said he only agreed to the deal because he needed the money to keep the farm in business. He still thinks that he and his wife did nothing wrong.
Sowers and his attorneys contend the amount seized would have been less but Assistant U.S. Attorney Stefan Cassella increased the amount seized because Randy spoke to the case to a reporter from The Baltimore Sun.
The Post reported that Cassella is the author of a book called Asset Forfeiture Law in the United States, 2nd Edition.
“It’s just such a compelling example of what happens when the government is just seizing money,” Randy Johnson, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, said of the Sowers’ case. An Institute press release shows that structuring is very profitable for Uncle Sam.
The federal government seized around $242 million in more than 2,500 structuring cases from 2005 to 2012, IRS documents obtained by the Institute indicate.
Some other disturbing facts about the cases from Freedom of Information Act inquiries include:
- Around one-third of the structuring cases involved people whose only “crime” was to make cash deposits of less than $10,000.
- The majority of structuring cases were civil and not criminal.
- Almost half of the money the IRS seized was paid back, indicating the government had no legal basis to seize it in the first place.
- The number of forfeiture cases in 2012 was five times the number in 2005.
On March 31, the Justice Department announced that the federal government would only seize bank accounts when “serious illegal transactions.” But that may not help Sowers, and it’s too soon to determine whether it will truly make a change.
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